You may have heard the concept of “managing your boss,” an idea that percolates on LinkedIn and Facebook feeds. It sounds a little weird in the top-down workplace culture that most of us live in.
We think we know what it means – that employees can be proactive to address their workplace situation, make sure their needs are met, provide updates on pressing matters, or persuade the boss to do things their way. But is that the best way to think about it?
A University of Delaware professor has clarified the concept of managing your boss and developed a way to measure it.
Sal Mistry, assistant professor of management in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, was lead researcher for an article published in November in “Personnel Psychology.” It offers insight into how employees can proactively build a job environment where they form positive working relationships with managers, and it’s useful for pretty much anybody.
“Everyone that works has a boss (even CEOs). We want to have a great relationship with that person. And we want to achieve greater levels of effectiveness in our jobs,” Mistry explained.
Unfortunately, many of the employees studied didn’t effectively manage their bosses, the researchers found.
Here are key takeaways from Mistry’s findings with fellow researchers Ravi S. Gajendran of Florida International University, and Subrahmaniam Tangirala of University of Maryland.
Be proactive, in a different way
A persistent assumption about “managing your boss” stresses finding ways to change your situation or your boss, which can certainly be appropriate. But there’s something missing: Advice on how to be a follower and connect with your boss in a positive way, Mistry and his fellow researchers argue.
“People have often heard the phrase, ‘manage your boss’ and think it means telling your boss what to do, giving your boss a set of goals/guidelines, sharing your priorities and tasks on which you’re working, selling/persuading your boss on your idea, voicing your opinion, etc.,” Mistry said.
He suggests a complementary and less frequent approach that can be effective: Working at becoming a better employee by building an understanding of what your boss needs and importantly, changing yourself to meet that need. It’s the idea of “followership,” one that gets far less press than leadership. Yet as Mistry notes, even top executives need this skill.
Determine when this approach is needed
If your supervisor is a whiz at keeping daily tasks humming along and making sure everyone has the resources needed, this “manage your boss” idea might not seem relevant.
But the situation becomes more urgent when a manager’s style is laissez-faire, letting events take shape on their own and not providing much oversight or guidance.
A micromanager might spell out exactly how to accomplish every task. But on the opposite side of the equation, the researchers found a manager might fail to make it clear to an employee just what their tasks are, or when they should be completed. Perhaps that boss is more laid back or even in some cases has a positive intent, trying to be empowering and less intrusive.
Sometimes, the job itself doesn’t have much structure. Unlike an assembly-line job or similar rote work, tasks and teams might be different every day, making it impossible to come up with a set routine.
“In the absence of clear guidance from a manager or organization, employees can also benefit from actively making sure they are aware of exactly what they are expected to accomplish,” Mistry said.
This kind of proactivity is not a simple fix, Mistry cautioned. It takes work and dexterity to build and maintain those kinds of relationships.
Assess your work situation
If you’re going to improve your relationship with your boss, you have to know where you’re starting from. Mistry’s team came up with some questions to ask to effectively dig into this, including:
- Do I proactively attempt to get a better understanding of my boss’s priorities?
- Do I prioritize my tasks to meet my boss’s work goals?
- Do I think about what is important to my boss when planning my work?
- Do I try to help my boss to achieve his/her work goals?
- Do I regularly align my communication style with my boss’s preferred communication style to meet my boss’s communication preferences?
If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, you might want to learn more about how to “manage your boss” and make your working relationship more effective.
Adapt to your manager’s goals, priorities and deadlines
To fine-tune a productive work environment that benefits both you and your boss will involve learning more about your boss’s priorities and goals.
Say for example you’re working on a project but have a number of tasks that don’t seem to have a clear purpose, or that aren’t efficient. As you see it, you’re going to be repeating work and getting sidetracked on irrelevant issues. Learning about the end goal and what your boss is trying to accomplish can help you make suggestions for better uses of your time and improving workflow. And it might save you from accidentally doing work the boss doesn’t even want.
Both of you will be happier with the result. Mistry’s research shows that this approach helps employees perform better and develop higher quality relationships with their boss.
Promote this kind of productive relationship within your company
While employees certainly benefit from being proactive to improve their working relationship with their bosses, companies have a role to play too.
HR departments and executives, Mistry said, should survey employees to find the ones already “managing their boss.” Those employees, who are more likely to be successful, “might serve as mentors and role models for others in the company,” he said.
Companies can also emphasize this approach in job descriptions, Mistry said. But further than that, they can reinforce it during training, in the company culture, and in performance reviews.