Managing your Boss

Here are some of the questions/issues I  have seen employees directly/indirectly ask which relate to their managers as well as to how they fit in the organizational scheme of things:

  • I can’t talk to my manager, he is too rigid/aloof/scary.
  • I am stuck in my career, no growth. My manager isn’t sympethetic to my career development. 
  • I don’t know how to navigate my company politics/power-structure. 
  • I feel I am under-utilized in my company. 
  • I feel that I am not learning enough. 
  • I don’t know what it takes to be successful in my company or industry.

While there shouldn’t be any employee who will have all of these problems (hope not!), managers or senior managers need to deal with these on frequent basis. Also, acceptable and consistent response to these will help an organization remain successful and competitive because they directly impact the effectiveness and satisfaction of their employees.

The reality is that most managers/organizations do not spend time in addressing these. However, there are some things an employee can do on his/her own even if organization is not geared to address these issues. I call it ‘managing your boss’, because most of what an employee needs has to come via the boss and he/she needs to manage the relationship with boss to get those. So, as an employee, if you want to be successful, you need to know how to manage your boss.

Here are some of the areas an employee needs to focus in while dealing with the boss in this context:

  • Managing the expectation of your boss – It is very easy for a manager to get super-excited when some employee delivers the goods and have very high expectations thereafter. This causes problem for the employee, because it is not always humanely possible to keep meeting/exceeding your best performance. So it is necessary to understand what the manager expects from you (this can change weekly, so be careful) and keep it with you at all times, in writing (email) if possible. Sometimes you need to push these expectations down if you feel you are not going to meet them. No one remembers what expectations were set, but they always remember when you don’t meet them. You are better off setting a low expectation and then exceeding it. Trick is to keep resetting expectations to lower than what you can achieve and keep beating it; think of public companies who have to do it quarter after quarter!
  • Making sure you get right assignments – It is very important for you to get assigned jobs that suit your skills and expertise profile, otherwise you will not do well. Managers, in their haste, do not try to do this skill mapping when assigning projects and instead go by ‘recently successful person’ or ‘most available person’ policy. Make sure you know when to say no to an assignment (and how), and when to lobby for one. Regular one-on-one meetings are useful forum to ask what new things are on horizon from team/company perspective so that you lobby for those you like and get away from those you don’t. It takes diplomacy, courage, and good communication skills. Maybe I will talk about it in some future post.
  • Making sure you get rewarded for your accomplishments – While it is the manager who is supposed to reward you on his/her own, it is OK to do a little prompting (in the right way!) if it is not forthcoming. This is because rewards (the public ones) let others know (your peers, cross-functional managers) about your accomplishments and set you up for success for future assignments that might require their trust and cooperation. Many times, some of the great employees do not do that well when they get more challenging projects because no one else trusts them to do a good job (esp. if the challenging projects involving leading groups, cross-functional assignments, etc).
  • Making sure you get genuine feedback: If you are doing reasonably good in your job, chances are  that you are not getting good feedback from your manager. Studies indicate that most managers spend most of their time on average/below-average performers. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you. Again, 1-1 is a great forum, force your manager to give you feedback by specifically asking about instances (“What do you think I should have done better in that meeting with marketing manager?”). Most managers may not have time to give general feedback, but most people find it easier to respond to specific questions. Without getting feedback, you will soon gravitate towards being average, which is what most organizational policies do to careers.

Ideally, all managers should be doing this to their employees, and if you are a manager, you will do well as a manager if you focus on these areas in your interactions with your reports. If you are an employee, focusing on getting your managers to do these things for you will make sure many of your career problems stay resolved and you will grow well. Of course, this is not enough to guarantee a great career growth, but this will certainly be a good start. If this is performance review time in your company, it may be good idea to set this expectation with your manager and if you do not have regular 1-1s scheduled with the manager, do it as soon as you can.

Let me know your experience with these or other aspects of employee-manager interaction.

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