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Your relationship with your boss is paramount—it can make or break your career. If you’re on your boss’s bad side, don’t count on pay increases, promotions, or other perks—perhaps, regardless of how well you are performing. Our research shows that those working for poor leaders are less likely to be productive and engaged in their work.
But, the state of your relationship goes far beyond career success. Gallup has shown a direct relationship between good leadership and employee well-being. According to their researchers, “when leaders opt to ignore employee well-being, they erode the confidence of those that follow them and limit their organizations’ ability to grow.” Not to mention a study from Sweden that showed a positive relationship between poor leadership and the risk of serious heart disease. Let’s face it—working for a bad boss will follow you home.
Here are some tips for making your relationship with your boss a better one.
Select Your Boss
Peggy was thinking about leaving her job for a team leader position in another department with a hefty salary increase. The job promised new challenges, an opportunity to learn, and most of all, the chance to lead. After two months of deliberation, she withdrew her application. The reason? It had nothing to do with the job; it had everything to do with the (poor) reputation of her boss-to-be. The point of this short story is pretty straightforward: If you have significant concerns about who you’re going to work for, think twice. By the way, the reverse is also true. A boss with a good reputation should enter into your equation for accepting a new role.
Cut Your Boss a Break
You don’t deserve to be belittled, bullied, or mistreated—period. That said, your boss is a human being, too. We’ve heard employees hold their bosses in contempt for the smallest offenses because they expect absolute perfection. Take Arun. He told us that one day everything seemed to be going wrong. During his last meeting of the day, he lost his temper. I didn’t yell, I just got angry, he said later. Arun’s anger surge had a definite effect on his team members; they seemed to avoid him for weeks.
You’ll make mistakes as a new leader, and so will your boss. You might want to provide feedback, but a few missteps might not justify putting your boss in the dog house forever. And, on the other side of the equation, it doesn’t hurt to maintain or enhance your boss’s self-esteem by paying a sincere compliment every now and then.
Get to Know Your Boss
If you have a good boss, she is doing her best to learn what makes you tick. It helps her to help you perform, continue to grow, and increase your level of engagement. The reverse is also true. Steve Arneson, author of a great book— What Your Boss Really Wants From You: 15 Insights to Improve Your Relationship—calls it studying your boss. He feels that if employees want better relationships with their bosses, they need to better understand where they are coming from.4 Arneson suggests a number of questions, the answers to which will enable you to learn more about your boss:
Just look at the advantage knowing your boss brings you. Christina avoided her boss first thing in the morning. She knew he needed time to get his day in order. She also soon understood his hands-off management style. She never bogged him down with the details. And Ricardo, a supervisor in an automobile production facility, knew his manager was asked to take charge of a plant-wide lean initiative. Ricardo, who respected his boss, knew the project was critical and went out of his way to help him succeed.
Getting Off—and Staying—on the Right Foot
No matter how you dice it, you and your boss will have a two-way relationship—a good one, bad one, or one in between. And, like any relationship, a good one not only takes an investment of time and effort, but it’s also one that you own!
All relationships begin with a strong start. On the microsite you’ll find a checklist for your first six months as a leader, with a set of actions you should specifically engage in with your boss. Following are a few questions you should consider before your first one-on-one meetings.
(Note: We don’t mean an appraisal of your work, but rather a meaningful discussion on how things are going between the two of you.)
And, while it’s important to ask these questions in the very beginning of your relationship, come back to them every so often.
While some bosses are micromanagers and want to know every little detail of whatever you’re doing, most merely want to know what’s going on. It’s not an unreasonable request. Steve told us about an incident that temporarily derailed his relationship with his boss, Janice, who was working on a complex project involving several teams. During a project coordination meeting with senior management, Janice learned that the project would miss its deadline by three months because of some technical difficulties within Steve’s team. She was pretty upset, Steve told us, I should have let her know in advance.
Ask for Help in Solving the Problem
You want team members to come up with their own ideas as they tackle problems and opportunities. A good boss rarely should be telling you how to solve a problem. On the other hand, she often may have suggestions on how you can tackle a new challenge or implement a new idea based on her experience. It makes sense to seek out your boss’s support. And, there’s an added benefit: Nothing makes a leader feel better than being asked for help. The key point here is to view your boss as a valuable resource, as someone who can help you get your job done.
Become an Adviser, Not a Whiner
Our boss, who happens to be a good one, recently kicked off one of our more challenging business planning meetings. He had, as always, an interesting, but relatively common-sense, piece of advice: I like to surround myself with positive people. I’d rather spend my time with people who have ideas and advice to tackle our challenges than to whine about them. Your boss’s respect for you increases exponentially when you help solve problems, not cause them. Don’t mistake this for buttering up your boss (or other phrases we choose not to use). It’s about becoming a respected adviser. How will you know if you’re doing this well? Easy—your boss will begin to seek out your thoughts and advice.
Take a Step Back
One hectic work pace means you’re likely to focus on tasks—getting things done. And that undoubtedly will filter up in the types of discussions you’ll have with your boss in performance appraisals, project updates, coaching, and planning. This means it’s important every now and then to take a short breather to work on your relationship with your boss (and others). Your own reflections and conversations occasionally need to focus on the quality of your relationship—not the quality of your work. There’s likely no other simple factor that will make the difference between hating every morning and enjoying your job as a leader.
Adapted with permission from YOUR FIRST LEADERSHIP JOB: How Catalyst Leaders Bring Out the Best in Others by Tacy M. Byham and Richard S. Wellins, Wiley, 2015. Byham and Wellins are CEO and SVP, respectively, of Development Dimensions International (DDI).