Landing your first job in a dream company can be quite a feat. Many graduates set out into the real world armed with gleaming resumes, detailing rigorous academic trainings, internships, and extra-curricular activities that elaborate overall competency. If you’re savvy and impressive enough during the interviews, then you’re lucky to get in. Staying and thriving, however, is a completely different challenge.
Skill and hard work are the bare necessities to every job and undertaking. To be really effective, though, takes more than just these two. Success in the workplace means being able to manage well a multitude of relationships—top-down with your subordinates; on the side with colleagues, clients and partners; and from the bottom-up with your boss. Unfortunately, the last part is the most often overlooked relationship in the workplace.
At this point, you might be thinking, Are you serious? Why do I have to manage my boss? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?
Managing your boss is not a new concept. In 1980, Gabarro and Kotter broke ground when their article, Managing Your Boss, was published by the Harvard Business Review. They claimed that a healthy relationship with the boss is essential to one’s success and moreover, in improving a company’s performance.
Clearly, your boss is your most important ally in the organization. A mutually-reinforcing relationship between a boss and a subordinate results in major gains for both parties and the organization, too. Earning your boss’ trust and support will help you meet your goals and take you to places within the corporate hierarchy and across the industry you are in.
The 3Es to Managing Your Boss
Admittedly, when I first encountered the phrase, I thought it was quite scheming and self-serving. Years later, I realized that learning how to successfully work with my superiors was crucial to getting things done in the organization. My bosses have opened a lot of opportunities for me to discover my talents and put them into good use, just as I have learned how to help them make sound decisions, relying on their wisdom and experience.
After Gabarro and Kotter, there has been a myriad of tips and advices on how to manage the boss. I would like to offer a simplified approach that nonetheless puts together all the salient points of each tip and advice, including those that I derived from my own experiences. Here, I propose the 3Es to managing your boss—ethically, empathetically, and effectively.
Managing your boss ethically
Managing your boss is not about taking advantage or licking boots on your way to success. In fact, it is the complete opposite: Dealing with your boss should be grounded on the value of integrity, a vital precept to fostering trust in any relationship. The first step to managing your boss begins with YOU.
Here are some tips:
1. Be self-aware. As you join an organization or work with a new boss, conduct a self-assessment of your strengths, weaknesses, and working style. Remind yourself about your career goals and short-term objectives for your current role. Gabarro and Kotter suggest that you also examine your predisposition toward dependence on authority figures.
2. Be open and transparent. Go through your present situation, as well as the current status of the programs you handle or functions you carry. Are there matters that may affect your future work, relationship with your boss, or your boss’ perception of you? It might be best to divulge them early in the relationship.
3. Honor your word. Your boss rests in the assurance that you can be counted on so do not make promises that you cannot keep. If deadlines have to be adjusted, advise your boss early.
4. Conduct yourself professionally. Create an impression that will merit trust and respect by drawing the line that would protect your personal space, which includes your private time for rest and recreation.
Managing your boss empathetically
Many of us are prone to the tendency of viewing the steps of a hierarchy as virtual pedestals that make our bosses immortal and unrelatable. The thing is, bosses are very human just like you and I. They have their own weaknesses and frustrations. They probably have more pressure than you as they are accountable to a host of individuals, from the big boss to their direct reports.
Nurturing a superior-subordinate relationship needs mutual compassion at a professional and human-level. Let us go through some tips on how we can empathize with our bosses and hopefully, receive the same:
1. Accept that your boss is your boss. Empathizing requires some form of humility and respect. It is hard to work with a boss if you cannot acknowledge authority.
2. Be aware that your boss is human—who has weaknesses and circumstances that may not suit you well as such, you would have to learn how to healthily deal with them.
3. Get to know your boss. It is necessary to observe and ask questions in order to determine how you will approach your boss later.
- What are your boss’ goals and objectives for the team? Is there a priority target?
- What are the most important issues to your boss? How does your boss respond to these?
- Does your boss report to higher authorities? What could be the pressures that they impose?
- What is your boss’ management style? (Is it aligned or contrary to yours?)
- How does your boss prefer to get information?
- Does your boss have weaknesses, working preferences or personal circumstances that may affect you negatively?
Managing your boss effectively
Equipped with self-knowledge and an awareness of your boss, it is now necessary to plan how you will approach your relationship and prepare for some possible setbacks. This is the part where you will learn how to win your boss and make a strong ally within the organization.
1. Be a supporter. Knowing the priorities and issues that matter, take the time to adjust your work plan and see to it that there is an alignment.
2. Make your boss look good. Whenever I am in awe of a program, an event or a speech, I always consider the great amount of staff work that made it possible. A boss is a reflection of the kind of people behind the work; superior outputs and outcomes are results of great leadership. A credible boss will generously share accolades with a team that gets the vision done.
3. Offer value. When reporting information, do not dwell on the details alone. Make recommendations; give your boss some options with their corresponding pros and cons—and if possible, limit to just two or three.
4. Clarify, clarify, clarify. When instructions are unclear, clarify. When uncertain about your plan of action, clarify. When you hear new or contradictory information from other sources, clarify with your boss.
5. Communicate. Ask questions and seek to understand, but also, learn to open up about the matters that concern you. Your boss may be your ticket to winning the nod of upper management for an important project.
6. Practice the art of negotiation. When views and priorities do not match, and you feel strongly about your stand, find a way to say it in a manner that does not antagonize. In some instances, you may have to learn how to creatively reach a compromise.
7. But if the boss remains adamant, then let the boss be boss. After all, they are ultimately accountable to the outcomes.
The Other Side of the Relationship
All of the tips above aim to empower you as you navigate the trappings of a typical organization that follows a structure. It may seem that the responsibility of keeping a healthy superior-subordinate solely lies on your shoulder, but do not forget that there is another party in the relationship. For any relationship to work, there should be some form of reciprocity or mutuality.
If in the beginning, you have substantial basis to doubt the integrity of your boss, then you may either have to be watchful or consider working for a different boss. On the other hand, if your boss is a difficult one – one who does not respond to any of your attempts to show support – then again, the decision to move forward or accept the situation rests on your hands. You must remember that the principles behind the 3Es also apply to managing one’s subordinates.