Improve Your Relationship With Your Boss

Managing up is a crucial part of your ability to be successful, both as an employee and as a manager.  The quality of your relationship with your boss (and your grand-boss, and your great-grand-boss, etc.) can dramatically affect the level of support and resources your team has to do its work.  The key in managing up is not that you act inauthentic or manipulative in order to get your boss to do something.  It's really about being strategic and understanding what your boss's priorities, strengths, and preferences are so that you can adapt your own priorities, strengths, and preferences accordingly.  

A great analogy is to think of your boss as a client, and you and your team as a freelance project team.  It wouldn't be "brown-nosing" to understand what the client is trying to achieve and finding ways to adapt your planned approach to their idiosyncrasies.  Likewise, it isn't sucking up to adapt to your boss - it's just smart business.  Here are some tips to make the most of this important relationship.

Select one of the action steps below to improve your working relationship with your direct supervisor.  (You can also apply this to people other than your boss, but you'll often get the highest ROI in both team results as well as your own stress level by focusing on your boss first.)

Determine how your boss prefers to receive information.

You may be able to guess, but if not, just ask!  Even if you have been working with someone for years, it's never too late to discuss how you can work more effectively together.  In fact, that should be an ongoing conversation, because things change over time.  Things to consider:

  • Do they prefer to focus on the big picture or the details?  (This may vary by topic - they probably like details in areas which which they have expertise.)
  • Do they like to have a chance to consider something before reacting, or are they okay with responding in the moment?  (Peter Drucker divides people into listeners and readers, which would apply here.)
  • Do they generally prefer e-mail or face-to-face communication?

Find out what your boss's formal and informal goals for the next six months are. 

What is most important, even among all the "super important 20 #1 priorities" list?  Based on that, identify at least 1 way you and your team can better align your work to support your boss's priorities.  (Note: this could be as simple as providing data showing progress in that area so that they can report upward on it.  It doesn't necessarily require new or different work.)

Consider your boss's strengths and the areas which he or she doesn't enjoy and/or excel in.

Identify at least two ways you can  help your boss play to his or her strengths and avoid the disliked or less capable areas.  The more you can set him or her up for success, the better off your whole team will be.  

Stop giving your most optimistic estimates. 

Top performers often like to let people know about their high standards and tend to communicate the aggressive deadlines or other goals they've set for themselves to their boss.  However, this can lead to you seeming less reliable, the exact opposite of what you're trying to do!  This isn't about sandbagging and setting the bar ridiculously low, but it's important to allow for the unexpected.  It's okay to still have the aggressive deadline for yourself and possibly even your team, but what you convey to your boss should have some additional buffer so that you know you can definitely meet the goal.  

Determine what  your boss's hot buttons are. 

Identify at least 1 way you and your team can do a better job of avoiding triggering those hot buttons.  For example, if your boss views even minor typos as indicators of shoddy work, implement a peer review process on the team to ensure that everything that your boss sees is free of any distracting errors.  

If you're not sure what your boss's hot buttons are, focus on a "no surprises" approach.  Assume that he or she doesn't like to hear something for the first time from your grand-boss, and make sure that you keep your boss in the loop about anything that might get senior leadership's attention.  

Build your network.

Managing up isn't just about your boss - it's about your internal network of people you know and can go to for help and support.  Identify 1 person who is not in your reporting chain but who might be able to help you in navigating organizational politics, and invite that person to coffee or lunch this month.  No need for an agenda - just get to know them and let them know you.

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