Working With, As Well as For, Your Boss
LOS ANGELES — Just about everyone has one.
You know, the person who occupies the corner office and has a plum parking assignment right next to the company entrance.
The one who determines when you'll see your next pay raise, your next promotion - your next pink slip.
And like it or not, he or she is the most important person at your job. And that means a constructive relationship with the head cheese ranks as priority No. 1.
Yet for plenty of employees, tapping into the inner workings of the person at the top is a mystery. And plenty of bosses don't make the game any easier.
What if your boss keeps promising a promotion - "It's right around the corner" - but there you sit?
Or what if she constantly turns down your suggestions, or, worse, just plain ignores you?
"If the boss and the subordinate don't get along, the subordinate always pays," says Kate Wendleton, a career counselor in New York. "That means it's always the subordinate's job to work out the relationship."
You and your boss don't have to be best friends. It's not about "kissing up" either.
"It's just like a marriage. You have to work at keeping that relationship good," says John Challenger of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas in Chicago.
In an era of revolving bosses, these rules often apply to more than one boss.
"Most people have six to eight bosses they have to be concerned about," Ms. Wendleton says. That includes your boss, your boss's peers, and your boss's bosses.
Know your boss's style
Start by finding out what makes your boss tick. How does he operate? Then adapt your style to his.
For example, find out if your boss prefers to communicate face to face, by e-mail, or by telephone - with long memos or short ones.
Does she think meetings are a waste of time? If you don't know, ask.
"Most people don't listen to their bosses," says Wendleton, president of the Five O'Clock Club, a job-search club. "They decide they're going to use their own judgment."
If the boss says, "Put this in writing," then put it in writing.
Also, read your boss's memos and reports, and don't forget to attend his speeches.
You should ask for periodic performance reviews and meet regularly with your boss - on your boss's terms, of course. But don't abuse your boss by hogging his or her calendar or becoming a redundant hanger-on.
Toot your own horn
Regardless of the size of the company, most bosses don't know what their employees - especially those a few levels below them - are working on.
So it's important to update your boss regularly on your accomplishments.
Some consultants recommend a weekly or monthly memo that lists your current projects, their status, and tentative completion dates.
"Bosses are impressed by numbers," says Russell Wild, author of "Games Bosses Play" (Contemporary Books, 1997). The more you can show you're contributing to the bottom line, how much money you're making or saving, the better.
"The key is to point out the things of consequence," Mr. Wild advises, "not every time you've sharpened your pencil."
Meanwhile, your boss should be helping you.
"A boss is supposed to be a mentor," says Marilyn Moats Kennedy, a career consultant in Wilmette, Ill. "If you're not learning from your boss more about the organization and how to do things, you've got problems."
She suggests finding out what your boss's peers and his boss think of him. Also, look at his track record. When was he last promoted?
"If your boss hasn't gone anywhere in the company in the last three years, chances are he's not any time soon," Wild says, "and neither are you."
So it may be time to go boss shopping.
Here are some other scenarios experts say to watch out for:
A boss ignores you. First, ask yourself, is it just you, or does your boss ignore everyone else in the office?
"Give the boss the benefit of the doubt," Wild suggests. "Don't assume he's out to get you.... Bosses are busy and are just as scared about their own jobs."
A boss takes credit for your work. Wild suggests several ways to handle this: Tell your department how supportive he has been of your project. (Flattery works wonders.)
Or, if your boss takes credit during meetings, Wild says, interject points about the project that only someone who worked on it in detail would know.
A boss promises you a promotion, but after months of waiting, nothing. As soon as the boss mentions the word promotion, talk specifics, Wild says. Inquire, "If I bring in three new clients, or if I finish a certain project, then will I get the promotion?" If your boss agrees, put it in writing with your boss's name on the top.
A boss unfairly criticizes you. "The issue of unfairness is in the eye of the beholder," cautions Ms. Moats Kennedy. If you think your boss is unfairly criticizing you, don't confront him face to face, she says. Rather, do it in writing, and take whatever was said and argue the opposite. In professional situations, it's important to avoid sweeping generalizations on the negative side and to stress any positive points you can.
Sometimes conflicts arise that that are impossible to solve. If so, career counselors advise, you might contemplate a transfer within the company or leave altogether.
This is tricky to negotiate because you often have to circumvent your boss (a major taboo in most situations). Start by going to human resources or to a mentor you can talk to confidentially.
You're In This Together; Try to Make It
Boss-subordinate relationships are complex. The mistake most of us make is not taking responsibility for the relationship.
Whether they're good or bad, we [sometimes] see bosses as enemies, put on earth to torment us and make our lives miserable. So we cleverly extricate ourselves from the relationship, putting the full burden on the boss.
In reality, it's a two-way street, and although you're the subordinate, you're nevertheless a major player. Where would the boss be without you?
In fact, you may be more than just another cog in the wheel. You could be one of the company's critical support beams. Maybe you're indispensible. That puts another whole spin on the picture doesn't it? You've got power and leverage that you weren't aware of.
In short, you need each other. It sounds corny, but in an almost perfect world, the boss-subordinate relationship is a partnership. When it works, it amounts to a good marriage; when it fails, it can be a disaster.
Take some responsibility for the relationship. Like the clich says, "It takes two to tango."
- From "I Hate My Boss!," by Bob Weinstein (McGraw-Hill, $12.95 paperback).
10 Ways to Impress Your Boss at a Meeting
1. Come prepared to participate.
2. Study the agenda ahead of time.
3. Prepare comments in advance; have the research to back them up.
4. Arrive on time or a few minutes early.
5. Take notes.
6. Give every speaker your full attention and maintain eye contact.
7. Act interested even if you're not.
8. Do not bring up or comment on irrelevant topics.
9. Control your emotions, particularly when you disagree. Instead of disagreeing, present alternatives.
10. Do not, under any circumstances, undermine your boss.
10 Ways, Some Serious, To Irritate Your Boss
1. Marking on your desk calendar the number of days until your vacation or retirement.
2. Keeping a copy of Soldier of Fortune in your office.
3. Sending your boss a chain letter with your name on it.
4. Soliciting him/her to buy something you sell on the side.
5. Recruiting fellow employees to work for your part-time multilevel marketing organization.
6. Dressing too casually on casual day.
7. Using terms of endearment such as "honey" or "dear."
8. Making excessive personal telephone calls during work.