There’s a lot about your work life that you can’t control: your coworkers, your assignments, your customers, your boss. Obviously, you can always quit, but when that’s not a realistic option, how you show up each day is everything. I once had a manager who routinely yelled and swore at me and thought the most important thing I could do for the company was clip newspaper articles about him. I knew I should work hard, but seriously?
Then, years later, a Pepsi executive counseled me, “Always go above and beyond, because then they will have no choice but to reward you.” That advice gave me a crucial sense of agency in the face of feeling powerless. It’s something I remembered later on as a manager, too. Actually, it’s something I’ve been forced to remember as a manager, by employees who’ve themselves gone above and beyond–even when I didn’t notice or even especially like them. But their efforts eventually made me recognize them anyway.
When Your Boss Just Doesn’t Notice You
How can you compel your boss to recognize you when they’re too busy or distracted to notice? It isn’t about grand gestures or taking on hugely ambitious projects. It’s doing your best work, every time.
In the second deployment of my company Humu‘s still-in-the-works product, about 40 of our client’s employees hit an unexpected bug. We fixed it, of course, but one of our engineers then decided to hand-write apologies to every one of those 40 people, and to thank them for the feedback. This wasn’t in her remit, nor was it anyone else’s, and her actions demonstrated that she was a star. And not just to me–the entire (albeit small) company still regularly refers to her as an example to be followed. That is above and beyond.
Maybe in your case it’s just about double-checking a presentation one last time, making one more sales call, rolling the silverware rolls a little bit tighter so they don’t fall apart (I used to wait tables at the Olive Garden), fixing the jammed printer instead of walking away from it, or doing something surprising for customers or peers. Psychologists describe this as “discretionary effort,” the work that we each choose to do beyond what’s required. And when your boss is too busy, or just too oblivious to notice you, it’s your discretionary effort that can change that.
The trick is drawing attention to this effort with subtlety. You don’t need to send an all-hands email announcing that you’re the hero who fixed the printer, or worse, only fix the printer when someone’s watching. But try this: The next time it conks out, offer to teach someone else on the team how to change the toner or unjam the jam–bonus points if it’s someone senior. It’s moments like these that managers can’t help but notice.
When Your Boss Doesn’t Like You
This isn’t to ignore (let alone reinforce) Silicon Valley’s long-cherished meritocratic myth. There are exceptions to every rule, and you will find biased and/or spiteful human beings in every walk of life. You may also encounter leaders who reward great work with even more work, just as you may find managers who reward one person’s mediocre efforts while totally disregarding your own.
My managing-up advice for these particular workplace tyrants? Keep pushing as you manage yourself into a new role. Your efforts will pay off in great references, resume-boosting accomplishments, and job-interview anecdotes. So instead of cramming in more hours (a losing game), thanklessly sucking up to superiors, or stepping on colleagues’ toes to show your value, keep delivering on your day-to-day tasks with a smile, and spend your extra energy networking–both internally and externally–to identify your next move.
Maybe you aren’t looking to make an escape, and you’re just trying to create a connection with your current manager. Winning over a skeptical boss can be a real challenge, particularly when you have reason to suspect that she doesn’t have faith in your ability. This can be especially hard for folks who work remotely. To build trust, say explicitly (or even write in email) what you’re going to do, and then do what you say–plus an additional 10% of above-and-beyond effort.
That may sound forehead-smackingly obvious, but taking a practical step like this tends to be the furthest thing from mind when you’re worried about your boss’s personal dislike for you. Putting the focus back on your work can can help you refocus on the part of your relationship that you can actually control–and eventually force them to come around.
Finally, everyone knows that a workplace isn’t a one-way street, and it’s not only your direct manager who can decide your fate. So if your boss simply has it out for you, think about how you can showcase your contributions peripherally in ways that aren’t heavy-handed or self-promotional. For example, after wrapping up a project, offer to host a short talk to share the risks you took, the outcomes, and what you learned that could benefit the team. Pro tip: By focusing on your failures and hard-won lessons, you can share accomplishments in a way that doesn’t have any whiff of egotism.
There are many parts of life you can’t control, and so many subtle, often unseen dynamics at play in every workplace. The one element that you can control, 100% and unilaterally, is your discretionary effort. Because if you show up each day determined to go above and beyond, someone in a position of power will indeed have no choice but to reward you.
Laszlo Bock is CEO of Humu, a company that’s making work better with science, machine learning, and a little bit of love. He is the author of Work Rules! and the former SVP of people operations at Google.