As I See It: Loving Your Manager
by Victor Rozek
Someone once told me that a job is only as good as your last manager. Over the years, I found there was a lot of truth to that statement. The difference between a job that was sufferable and one that was enjoyable had much to do with how well I got along with the boss. Tough economic times put an even greater premium on relationships. When layoff lists are compiled, the names at the top are seldom management's personal favorites.
Good job or bad, if you expect to keep it, better learn to love your manager and help him to appreciate you, because here's the reality: About six percent of us are unemployed and of that number 1.7 million have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. Some $630 billion has disappeared from corporate pension funds, as has $4 trillion in shareholder assets. People who were thinking of retiring early may be compelled to continue working, thus freeing up fewer jobs for the hordes of new job seekers.
Although the economy has dropped into a well of uncertainty, we can extrapolate the following with some assurance: Don't like your job? The economy doesn't care, and neither does your manager.
Perhaps that's harsh. Of course there are numerous managers who care about their employees' welfare. But in many sectors of the economy these are difficult times, and when you're trying to keep the lifeboat afloat it becomes less important that the rowers are comfortable.
Until the economy rebounds, one of your most important jobs is not to look like expendable ballast simply because you and your manager don't get along.
Any possibility of standing out as a desirable glazed donut amidst employees who resemble dull bran muffins assumes that your work is adequate and that your disagreements with your manager are based on issues other than performance. If your work is poor and you openly don't get along with management, you are probably already headed for unemployment or are being protected by a union.
There are many reasons why two people might not get along, but they can all be summarized in one word: differences. Differences in style: loud versus quiet, aggressive versus passive, intense versus casual, neat versus cluttered, joiner versus loner, left-brain dominant versus right-brain dominant, linear versus orbital, task driven versus relationship driven. Differences of opinion about how things should be run or who gets promoted; differences over compensation disparities, work assignments, or scheduling. Differences in beliefs: religious, political (conservative versus liberal). There are also cultural and generational differences, which color the way individuals interpret events, and delimit the style and frequency of employee/manager interaction.
With all the possible points of contention, it's often hard to know just what the issue may be. Sometimes you may only sense a lack of ease, based on nothing spoken or overt. You may feel disapproval or judgement, or experience a vague discomfort when you are in your manager's presence. Sometimes employees report feeling "unseen," as if their manager doesn't know or care who they really are. Others feel manipulated in their interactions with management and believe they are powerless to influence or change their manager's beliefs about them.
The antidote to differences is communication. It sounds simple, but it is somewhat counter-intuitive, because people who feel awkward in each other's presence tend to avoid each other and speak only when the silence becomes intolerable or impractical. I've personally worked for several managers who stayed glued to their executive office chairs and emerged only when they had complaints. One in particular adopted a strategy of asking employees to lunch as a way to soften reprimands. As employees caught on, the invitation itself was enough to ruin the meal.
The responsibility for initiating communication rests with the person who first becomes aware of its lack. Thus, the summons to lunch was an indication that I had failed to communicate something of importance to my manager. Don't wait for the annual performance evaluation to begin the dialogue. If you haven't connected with your manager all year, chances are he doesn't know exactly what you are doing. And if your tasks no longer align with last year's goals, having your manager discover that fact during a performance evaluation will not be to your benefit.
It can be very beneficial, however, to drop in informally and let your manager know what you're doing, especially if your responsibilities have expanded or diverged from the agreed-upon plan. It's a way to both underscore your value and ask for feedback: Do you want me to continue what I'm doing? Are you satisfied with my performance? Is there anything that I should be doing that I'm not? Feedback closes the communication loop and will provide you with valuable information.
Most people fear feedback because it so often tends to be negative. In reality, feedback is usually composed of both upside and downside information, but we tend to immediately disregard the positive as soon as anything negative is uttered. Feedback can and should be your best friend. If your manager has issues with you, you will want to know. If praise is forthcoming, you deserve to hear it.
If you and your manager have differences in style, let your manager know you value the differences. Be inquisitive. Differences provide the opportunity for learning and understanding. If everyone was exactly like you, the world would soon become dull and predictable. For example, work typically includes elements of both task and relationship. However, people who are predominantly task-oriented (most managers) have little understanding or patience for people who are fundamentally relationship-oriented. The task-directed people will always want to complete all of the outstanding tasks before attending to relationships. Relationship-oriented people want to make sure everyone is OK before embarking on task completion. Both get their jobs done but exercise different priorities. Tasky people think relationship folks are frivolous and waste time. Relationship-oriented people experience tasky folks as uncaring and robotic.
If you and your manager have different personal styles, whatever they be, explore the strengths and differences of each. Both will have value, and no single style will be appropriate for every situation. Be flexible and let your manager know you are willing to subordinate your preference when necessary.
Respectful inquiry is vital in bridging differences. It says, "I care enough to learn about how you experience the world and how you have come to hold your beliefs." It is necessary to meet the other person in his view of the world before you can hope to influence him. As Stephen Covey admonishes, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." The process of understanding and being understood is what gives people depth, value, and psychological visibility. Given an acceptable level of performance, an employee's best protection against economic uncertainty is connection. People are starved for anyone who will genuinely listen to them. Show an interest in your manager's perspective and you may be rewarded with loyalty.
Differences in beliefs are hardest to bridge, especially when beliefs have hardened to the point of absolutism. People who feel strongest about issues often seek agreement, not discussion. In such cases, discussion is not advisable, because it is liable to lead to argument. Nor is anything to be gained by challenging someone's core beliefs. But offering acknowledgement is a respectful and powerful means of providing the speaker with understanding, without the need for agreement or rebuttal. "Yes, I understand why you believe that." Or, "I sense you feel a great deal of passion about this issue." Or, "I understand why this is so important to you." Simply noticing and acting as a mirror for what is meaningful to the speaker is an act that, for most of us, inspires some measure of gratitude.
When initiating this level of communication, it is vital that you be authentic and sincere. If your intention is to manipulate rather than to connect, your impact will be negative. Establishing a connection with your manager will require not only inquiry, but a measure of self-disclosure and honesty as well, qualities not always in abundance in the workplace. Unfortunately, many of us behave as if George Bernard Shaw's quip were true, that "It is dangerous to be sincere, unless you are also stupid." In uncertain economic times, when the value of strong relationships increases, people who believe Shaw will guard their secrets, their fears, and their resentments, and herd them jealously, right to the unemployment line.
Contact the Editors
Last Updated: 8/5/02
Copyright © 1996-2008 Guild Companies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.