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Getting the Most From Your Boss

In this excerpt from Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader, authors Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback explore the dynamics between employee and boss, and on the difference between bosses mentoring and judging.

Being the Boss

One member of your network deserves special attention: your boss. Managers at all levels too often neglect or mishandle this critical relationship and so fail to make the most of it.

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Managing up is important because your boss plays a pivotal role in your success–or your failure. You can leverage your boss’s influence in the organization on your behalf in several ways–for example, by obtaining valuable information, winning needed resources, and securing important support for your personal development and career. When you face difficult trade-offs and must make decisions that create both beneficial and painful consequences for others, your boss’s advice, insight, knowledge of the organization, and access to higher management can be invaluable. As your organization shifts and changes shape in an uncertain market, a good relationship here becomes a necessity for navigating through the turmoil. The penalties of a poor relationship are many: less influence, little information or advice, fewer resources, and limited personal development and career support. Worst case, you can find yourself isolated, ignored, pushed out–your journey stalled, your career derailed.

Why Is It Often an Uneasy Relationship?

This relationship can be problematic for two reasons. First, a boss plays conflicting roles: supporter and evaluator, which can create confusion. Second, people often bring their past experience with authority into the relationship, which can create unnecessary complications.
This is another area where being a star as an individual contributor may not have prepared you for management. As an exceptional performer, you probably had minimal interaction with your boss. If so, you most likely didn’t develop the skills of managing up that you need now.

Do You See Your Boss as Coach and Developer or as Evaluator and Judge?

You’re caught in a difficult dilemma, one that can feel personally threatening. The boss is not only a potential source of great help, in both your job and your career, but also the one who evaluates your performance. To get help from her as a developer, particularly with your personal development, you must reveal your shortcomings. But if you do, she in her role as evaluator may interpret your weaknesses as serious faults. Many managers handle this dilemma by striving to appear capable and in control even when they’re not. They see their boss more as threat than ally and lose the potential benefits of her help.

Are you confused by your boss’s dual role? Do you tend to see your boss as primarily a judge? Does that attitude seem safer to you? That’s understandable, but it’s not always the most helpful point of view.

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What can you do? Don’t presume your boss is always one or the other, judge or coach. Instead, think of his dual roles as extremes between which he moves back and forth depending on the situation. At first, in small ways that aren’t risky, test his willingness to provide support. That way, you can see when, where, and how he’s likely to focus on development rather than evaluation. Learn his feelings about what’s important in management–such as careful planning, decisiveness, building consensus–and make sure you develop and display those qualities.

Do You See Past Bosses in Your Current Boss?

How do you feel about your current boss? How do you respond to authority in general and to those who have it? If most of your bosses have frustrated you and fallen short of your expectations, you and they may be victims of the emotional baggage you carry forward from past experience. Reflect on your own history and the feelings it’s created in you. That history may lead you to perceive your current boss not as who she is but as an amalgam of past authority figures, with all the positive and negative feelings that flow from that past. Unless you’re aware of these feelings, you’ll be at their mercy.

On the other hand, you may respond to authority with overdependence, rather than resistance. Extreme deference and automatic, unquestioning compliance don’t work well either. Those who react this way never disagree or push back, even when they’re right or it’s in their best interest.

Both antagonism to authority and too much deference will keep you from seeing your boss clearly and realistically and prevent you from securing the work and personal benefits available from a good relationship.

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What Should Your Relationship with Your Boss Be?

Do you realize that your relationship is actually one of mutual dependence? Your boss depends on you and needs your commitment and support to succeed. Just as you may wrestle with your reliance on your people, he probably struggles with his dependence on you and his other direct reports.

Think of the relationship as a partnership in which the partners depend on each other to succeed and are able to influence each other in ways that improve the performance of each. It’s not a relationship of equals, certainly, but it’s not entirely one-way either. You usually do have some room to negotiate and create the relationship that works for both of you.

Take Stock of Your Current Relationship

Is your current relationship a partnership? Are you and your boss able to have a normal, constructive discussion about work? If not, why not? Don’t assume you can make significant differences in how your boss thinks or operates. Most likely, the best you can do is nudge her in directions that work better for you. That’s certainly worth doing. But you’re unlikely to create large changes.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Copyright 2011 Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback. All rights reserved.

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Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Kent Lineback has spent 25 years as a manager and executive and, before that, several years as a consultant and program creator in management development.

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