17 October 2015 10:26:04 IST

Managing your boss

This is in no way a reference to manoeuvring or apple polishing

Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson, authors of the widely read The One Minute Managers have simple advice for managers: Catch someone doing something right. Employees strive to be spotted doing a smart thing by their managers but as Murphy’ Law has it, it's usually the errors and blunders which stand out.

Skill of managing

While success in the corporate world depends on many aspects and attributes such as high levels of intelligence, communication skills, and problem-solving capabilities, the crux of any career is the rapport and relationship one cultivates with the boss.

An organisation, by its very definition, is a collection of people, and the ability to work effectively with people makes a huge difference. Any executive is bound to have frequent interactions with peers, subordinates and the boss.

This is like a cube; effective professionals master the skill of managing all these three dimensions consistently and carefully.

A manager learns how to manage subordinates well and also develops a good rapport with the peer group. However, the most critical aspect is the relationship with the boss.

Mutual dependencies

To many people, the phrase “managing your boss” may sound unusual or suspicious. The traditional top-down focus in most organisations prevents people from consciously managing relationships upward; except for personal or political reasons. Managing the boss is in no way a reference to manoeuvring or apple polishing. It simply means the process of taking efforts to work with the boss to obtain the best possible results for self, the team, the boss and, above all, the company.

John J Gabarro and John P Kotter, in a Harvard Business Review article, talk about the mutual dependencies that exist between the boss and subordinate and how this relationship needs to be carefully nurtured and managed.

The general perception is that the boss is omnipotent and omniscient. The all-powerful and all-knowing, who has considerable influence and can make a huge impact on your career and your financial and emotional wellbeing. This argument has limited validity; the reality is indeed very different.

Every boss needs help and support from his subordinates to do his own job well. The boss needs a lot of cooperation from his team members and at times, even encouragement and motivation. We have seen instances of reverse mentoring taking place.

Boss as the resource

Apart from being the boss, he plays a vital role between the subordinate and the rest of the organisation. Bosses provide the crucial link to the rest of the organisation, either by organising the resources or providing the necessary information at the right time. Bosses are deeply involved at the time of induction and on-boarding of new talent. It doesn’t matter whether the new entrant is a management trainee or a Chief Operating Officer. Good bosses ensure the new entrants get the right exposure in the early days, by making the necessary introductions to the right people.

Bosses also advise the newcomers about the unwritten dos and don’ts and share with them the organizational stories and legends. More importantly, inductees are given navigational tips to avoid potential minefields.

Understanding the boss is important.

Reader or listener?

To manage the interface which thus defines work and workplace, the most important prerequisite is a complete understanding of your boss. What are the goals of your boss? What are his priorities? What are his current challenges? What is his current preoccupation?

Literally and metaphorically, bosses come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are extroverts and others introverts. Some are measured in their approach while others are spontaneous. And then you have bosses who are very creative in their approach whereas there are many who prefer the more orthodox methods of management. Legendary management guru Peter F Drucker broadly categorises people as either readers or listeners.

Some of us prefer to read the documents and go well-prepared for meetings whereas some others like to play it by ear and get into on-the-spot discussions. There is no right or wrong method and neither is there a call for value judgements to be made. What is important is the ability to understand your manager’s preference and adapt your approach accordingly.

Drucker rightly states that organisations are built on trust between people; not necessarily meaning that they like each other, but that they understand one another.

Some managers have a need for high involvement in various activities; they would like to be kept informed of the minute details. While others are big picture executives who get bored with details and would be happy if subordinates don’t burden them with the nitty-gritty details. Ronald Reagan, one of the great presidents of US, is good example of big picture leader, who was an excellent communicator and visionary but was never comfortable with details.

There are interesting anecdotes about his interactions with Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK, and a contemporary of Reagan. Thatcher struggled in managing the interface, even though they shared excellent rapport. The reason was their different styles of communication. While Thatcher was known for her hands-on approach and intensely involved style of working, Reagan, a more expansive personality, looked beyond details and into the future. Styles notwithstanding, Reagan and Thatcher became political soul-mates, working together for many common causes.

Expectation sharing

Trust and openness is the bedrock of a good boss-subordinate relationship. Some bosses are very transparent in sharing their expectations upfront. But there are many who may not be so explicit in communication. In the latter situation the onus is on the subordinate to reach out to his boss to get the required clarity.

The annual event of performance appraisal discussions is not the only platform to exchange views and opinions. We live in a dynamic world and the business context changes rapidly. And with that, expectations change too. Need-based interactions or even a spontaneous meeting to see how the land lies and what needs to be done; will help both the boss and the subordinates stay on the same page.

A here and now approach will not only aid clarity but also avoid miscommunication and ‘reading between lines’.

Multi-pronged approach

Having a good relationship with the boss is very important for professional success and this can call for a multi-pronged approach. Time invested in understanding the boss’s preferences, style and priorities will yield handsome results if one is proactive.

The boss is not an adversary or an opponent. He is a colleague with the additional responsibility of managing a team.

So, instead of being wary of confrontation, if one seeks comfort and collaboration in a boss-subordinate relationship, any professional is sure to be successful and in a sustained career.

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