The work relationship between you and your boss is one of your most
important investments. Your boss is key to your future and the primary
source for the resources you need to get your job done. That being the
case, it’s an important reminder that your boss is also the one who can
help you prioritize your jobs. Finally, your boss is the one who can
best link you to the rest of the organization. In sum, more than anyone
else, your boss can either help or hinder your career.
So how can you go about building a great work relationship with your boss?
The best way is by means of an informal social contract. But first, I
want to disabuse you of some widespread, totally false notions regarding
boss-subordinate relationships in all kinds of contexts.
your boss’s style, typically it’s up to you to establish and manage the
lines of communication. The first error many workers make is that they
somehow believe that it’s their boss’s responsibility to communicate to
them and create the work relationship. That’s a hangover from the old
hierarchical mythology of the last century. It’s not true, never was
true, and it won’t work that way. Furthermore, information rarely flows
down. In short, if you want to know what your boss thinks, needs or
wants, you’re going to have to find out for yourself. And if you think
your boss is operating outside reality, you’re going to have to figure
out how to tell him.
Finally—and make certain you understand this—if you want to be
noticed for your performance, influence the dimensions by which your
boss will measure you, manage the powers that be and enhance the egos of
those above you, the starting place is a great work relationship with
your boss. [All three of these competencies are quite learnable. You’ll
find a blog on influence here, one on managing up, and another on enhancing egos.
Check my personalized Googler for more blogs on the subjects. It’s rare
to meet anyone with these competencies, but today’s complex, diverse
workforce makes them both more needful and more valuable.] In short, no
one gets ahead in business without the ability to smartly suck-up to
their boss (all without, hopefully, compromising their values too much).
I would argue that it’s true in education, government, especially the
non-profits and the church/temple/mosque ministry—and often in our own
families. My brother always got in trouble with my mother—which meant he
got in trouble with my dad—because he didn’t know how to suck up to
mother. I learned early on, and realized that once I did the few things
she really needed, I could do whatever the hell I wanted. As a former
family counselor, I should say that there are some healthy parents, but
that they are few in number.
Now back to that business of building a great work relationship with
your boss. Years ago I adapted a relationship process from the work of
Ed Schein, one of the world’s top experts in organizational behavior,
now emeritus professor at MIT. Though originally a process for team
relationships, it also works exceptionally well when applied to the
boss-subordinate relationship. Indeed, bosses have requested me to coach
their subordinates into the process. There’s no reason that bosses
can’t manage down and teach the process to their subordinates, in spite
of the fact that it is a managing-up strategy—but they just plain don’t
like to spend their time communicating down. The successful bosses spend
their time building a great work relationship with their own boss.
The relationship between a boss and direct report is always rather
straightforward. They need to build a work relationship, establish an
emotional climate that facilitates getting things done effectively and
develop a set of work methods. The underlying social and communication
forces that shape the working dynamic are significantly overlooked in
most boss-subordinate relationships. These work “methods,” what I call
“infrastructure,” support the achievement of decision making and
business processes and provide the underlying relationship logic.
Bosses and workers make all kinds of assumptions about their
relationship, but this is one way of getting those assumptions on the
table, talking about them, and enhancing the relationship.
The easiest way to talk about these issues is to arrange a
conversation in which you want to talk about or confirm your
understanding of what your boss really wants from you. After all, you
know that if your boss looks good, then you’ll look good. You’d be
surprised how often you can say those actual words, get a laugh from
your boss, and get all the information you need from him. The
conversations should include one or more of the following questions (you
may find that your boss wants to spend the whole time on the first
question you ask. OK. Finish the other questions later. It may take
How do you set mutually shared goals?
How do you prefer to solve problems?
What kind of information do you typically need to make decisions, and how do you go about it?
How do we ensure follow-through and completion of tasks?
How can we best collaborate in our efforts?
How will we keep our lines of communication open?
How do we manage our differences most effectively?
Again: These are best discussed early in a
relationship. But my clients have initiated these conversations at all
stages of their relationship with their boss. Although there are
occasions in which this entire infrastructure has been covered in one
extensive conversation—and bosses have asked for that—a conversation may
include only one or two of the issues at a time. They do not need to be
discussed in any special order.
Furthermore, once you’ve gotten the information from your boss, and
she thinks you understand, your boss may break her rules. That means
you’ll have to renegotiate the issue once more. Renegotiation is normal
for these relationships. As often as not, you won’t realize that your
boss has stepped outside his agreed-upon rules until you’ve slept on it.
Then you need to get right back to her, talk about the issue some more,
renegotiate . . . or whatever. And keep her happy. It should be
obvious that if your boss is happy with you, you’re liable to be happy
I should also add that I’ve worked this process with 75 to 100 bosses
and subordinates at some of the best companies in the world, and,
without exception, they all love it.
P.S. I note that Rosabeth Moss Kanter,
the resident brain at Harvard Business School, argues similarly about
boss failure, although fixing the relationship seems to be a more
Photo: Flickr, Hira10