Throughout our careers, the people we work for have not just a huge influence on our success at work – they very often can have a profound effect on us as a person.
Think of a favourite boss now and I suspect the word “boss” is not nearly enough to describe the role he or she played for you. Role model. Mentor. Coach. Advocate. Teacher. Sounding board. Confidant. A great boss is so much more than just a boss.
Given the central and significant importance of my relationship with my boss, I want to be adept at fashioning a strong working partnership with that person – whether they’re a favourite boss or not.
Here are 9 behaviours to achieve the kind of productive, deeply respectful and free-flowing relationship with your boss that sets you both up for ongoing success at work.
#1. Understand what they require from you
Obvious stuff, first: understand what your boss requires from you. And in particular, how they like to operate. No sense in knowing those objectives and not knowing how best to deliver on them.
But as obvious as this all is, it’s remarkable how few of us think to ask these questions (both at the outset and ongoing). And then when we do, fail to tailor our focus and approach to those crucial considerations.
Get clear on your boss’s requirements and their preferred ways of working. We might not want to let that dictate our approach to work, but we do want to be mindful of it.
#2. Align yourself and your work with their business objectives
If the performance management process is working well in your environment, this should be happening anyway. But it might be useful both to check-in further and to think where else delivery “above and beyond” could serve your boss’s specific objectives.
A success for your boss reflects well on the team as a whole. Which is great for you. Great for those around you. And your boss will know who was instrumental in making the big project happen. Also useful.
I’m sure you don’t need any more convincing of the virtues of alignment. But if you do: just consider the alternative and how difficult everything becomes when you’re not aligned.
#3. Be proactive – at just the right times and in just the right ways
It’s reasonably clichéd stuff to say a boss would rather have a proactive than reactive team member. But it needs mentioning when we notice just how many opportunities we pass-up on a daily basis to demonstrate our proactivity and extended thinking.
And this isn’t just about being proactive on our own task list. Open your awareness to everything that’s going on in the department, the organisation and the wider business context. Use that information and insight to support you and your boss.
A small caveat: “proactive” at the wrong time and in the wrong way can play-out as an overstep, as arrogance or any number of other negative connotations. Get to know how your boss likes proactivity to happen.
#4. Don’t be needy
Neediness in business never works. It’s raises a low-level threat response in the other person, because that neediness translates in the brain to an extra burden; extra work that the mind and body now has to do. As in: “as well as everything else I have on my plate, I now have to look after this person and their problems”. Hardly a joyful experience!
And it’s not just neediness. Being overly-emotional. Whinging and moaning. Lots of criticism or pessimism. Over-reaction. It’s all an emotional drain for everyone in the team.
So, I want to avoid that. I want my boss’s experience of working with me to be an energising joy – not a draining chore.
#5. Don’t ask questions you could answer for yourself
We might think this is a mistake we’d never make. But at times, we’re so in awe of a great boss or so keen to show deference and alignment, that we over-ask. We want to check absolutely everything.
Fast-forward and imagine the conversation with your boss. Think it through and consider: do I need to ask that? And look for opportunities to upgrade the parochial question to a much higher-level set of questions and decisions that are follow-ons to the answers you’ve already amassed without your boss.
Don’t forget the old adage: to bring solutions, not problems. Develop a range of options. Do your factual homework around each. And be prepared to talk to them in succinct and solutions-focused ways.
#6. Be straight when things go wrong – and bring solutions with your apologies
When forging any relationship of meaning and common purpose, honesty and directness are key. And especially when things go awry and/or there’s a crisis looming: we all respect and value straight answers, sincerely delivered and with accompanying solution options.
Of course, work diligently to avoid serious mistakes. But when they do happen: Be upfront about it. Be sincere in your apology. Work hard to come-up with credible options to correct the mistake. And pledge your commitment to resolving the situation.
Make sure you cover everything in that communication. No one likes to hear about a serious issue and have that big conversation – only then to find-out there’s more to it that we were afraid to mention earlier.
One more thought: as the boss in this scenario, I want to see my team’s willingness to be honest and direct about serious issues as feedback on the quality of my leadership. Am I the type of leader who makes it safe to share bad news? Am I the type of leader who inspires creative and expansive thinking in the event of a crisis?
#7. Go above and beyond the call of duty
Being proactive. Have a strong solutions-focus. Working towards not just your own objectives, but your boss’s. All these behaviours already point to someone who goes above and beyond. But is there yet more you could do?
Perhaps the first thought when we talk about going above and beyond is longer hours. And so, we don’t entertain sit with the thought of “what else could I do?” because the thinking just stops at “longer hours”. But longer hours is just one thought – and a pretty low-level thought, at that. Let’s get more creative and think beyond that first thought …
Noticing and highlighting market insight. Sharing new intelligence. Tapping your own network. Forging new relationships. Eyeing opportunities. Bringing-in new business. Investing in the development of someone else in the team. Streamlining processes. Improving communications with other areas of the business. What other creative ways can you find to go above and beyond?
#8. Don’t insult your boss’s intelligence
Alongside all the positively-intended behaviours above, I also want to strike the right balance for fear of insulting my boss’s intelligence.
In any communication, every time I “put something out there”, I run the risk of raising fear (which then plays-out in any number of forms) in the other person. That’s why so much all communications development work starts with ensuring safety. And that thought is certainly true in communications between me and my boss.
So yes, I want to raise issues – but I don’t want to suggest they don’t know or couldn’t get there, themselves. Yes, I want to offer reasonable reminders, since their focus might be at a higher level than mine – but I don’t want to imply they have no powers of retention, whatsoever. Yes, I want to be straightforward – but I don’t want to patronise.
My focus, then, is an adult-to-adult communication style with a strong and healthy respect for their intelligence.
#9. Ask for feedback – and act on it
Of course, we want to ask our boss for feedback: both directly and indirectly; both formally and informally; both in-the-moment and in review meetings. But whilst some of this is built-in to the working environment and its practices, we can always do more.
Feedback is one of the most important development resources we have available to us – yet we shy away from it. Why? It’s a status threat. So, there’s a natural resistance to asking. But I really want to challenge that fear and see feedback simply as information. I don’t have to create a story around it. I don’t have to tag my self-esteem to it. It’s just information that I can now choose to incorporate.
And so, on to Crucial Point #2: I want to act on that feedback. And that doesn’t necessarily mean accepting it, as given. Even if the act is to downgrade its significance or even disregard it all-together, I want to be intentional with what I do with that information.
Where I do choose to act on it (the mostly-preferred choice): I want to act on it right away. I want to convert it into a behaviour or set of behaviours that can be implemented this week. I want to install a “system” around it – to make it happen! And I want to define some measure of its effectiveness that I can use to track my efforts.