Morphing your boss from giant — or mom, or dad — back to person, boss-human being, can be a liberating experience. Doing it can build a valuable skill to carry into future jobs. And doing it doesn’t require cooperation.
Our feelings about our boss come largely from childhood, when we experienced our first bosses, our parents as all-powerful giants. Burdened with this old baggage, it’s sometimes hard to see some authority figures, maybe our boss, as a person like us — with hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, problems at home, and self-doubts. But presidents, media celebrities and bosses are not giants — they also put on their shoes one foot at a time. Fortunately there are some actions you can take to build a more casual rapport with “your boss.”
Open Up…Start Talking
Lets start with one fact. Managers often feel isolated, left out of the loop on what’s happening below them. This is an acute problem for CEOs at the top of the authority pyramid. This isolation happens when employees don’t feel comfortable initiating casual conversations — they leave it up to the boss to make the first move. This limits upwards communication and the flow of information.
Senior managers are hungry for improved relationships and information, but often don’t know how to change things. Some were taught not to have personal relationships with subordinates because it might make inhibit giving honest negative feedback or might be seen as favoritism.
If you are an employees, improving the relationship with your boss does not have to be a big event. You might just smile and say, “Hello” in the morning, mention your son’s baseball game, or ask how his or her weekend was. One small comment might open the way to a conversation, and lead to a more responsive boss. Here is an even more proactive way.
I taught management courses at the UC Irvine campus to budding supervisors and managers. In the week between each all-day Saturday class, the student assignment was to apply class work to their job. One assignment was to practice “The Cultural Interview”. Each student had to “Interview” a person they worked with but did not know well personally. The results were always striking. Here’s one.
Mike was a mid-20s first-level engineer in a 12 person consulting company. He felt distanced from the firm’s owner, who Mike said, “Spent too much time in his office.” Mike decided to invite the owner to lunch and “Interview” him. He was apprehensive but the class was encouraging. The following Saturday Mike said that the interview went well and that the day after the lunch the owner walked around the office talking with other employees. “It was the first time I had seen him do that.” Two years later, at a professional conference, Mike sought me out to excitedly report that he had been promoted to office manager. He said his promotion began with that Interview. It changed their relationship.
Do Something Together
A more ordinary, and a very effective way to build a relationship, is to do something together. This might be working together on a business project or it might be something informal, like playing together on the unit’s softball team, or working on a United Way drive.
What if Your Attempts at Bridge-Building Fail?
Some managers use their role to isolate themselves and avoid intimacy. These managers find relationships too difficult, preferring to keep employees (and others) at a distance. In that case your attempt to improve relationships upwards may fail.
If your repeated attempts to establish better communications with your boss are getting nowhere, you may just have come up against one of these well-defended (fearful) managers. In that case there is little you can do. If the lack of a strong relationship is actually a problem your best solution is probably to find another position, hopefully with a more open person. Surveys show that poor relationships with an immediate supervisor is the number one reason people resign.
cc 424 – © Barry Phegan, Ph.D.