As offices across the country close out a week marked by celebrations of “Boss’s Day,” now is a great time to consider your relationship with your current boss–could it be improved, or maximized in some way?–or what kind of notes you might want to strike with your next one.
“The most important driver of employee engagement is the relationship they have with their immediate manager,” says Piera Palazzolo, Senior Vice President of Dale Carnegie Training. She says the most successful relationships are those where bosses and employees really get to know one another.
“That’s different from years ago, when you weren’t supposed to ask any personal questions. Those lines are blurred now, people want you to care about them, particularly if there’s something going on in their lives that might affect their performance.”
To that end, we checked in with Palazzolo and LinkedIn Careers Expert Nicole Williams about what you can do right now to get a faltering relationship back on track, get the most out of an already positive one, and plan for what you might want out of your next one.
1. Find out exactly what your boss wants, and understand the pressure they’re working under.
The simple fact is that the relationship between bosses and the employees they oversee has changed significantly over the past several decades.
“An employer feels they need to work hard to keep you at the company,” says Williams, adding that at the same time, “the expectation is you won’t need as much guidance and hand holding.”
Couple that with the changing nature of office environments that now include a new generation of employees with totally different work styles, and your boss has a lot on his or her plate.
“In terms of command and control this generation is much more apt to question their boss’s judgment, and the expectations for bosses are higher. They’re expected to be more empathetic and in-tune with what this employee’s needs are.”
For some bosses, particularly those who came of age in much more formal, hierarchical work settings, this may be a tall order. Eliminate the guess work and learn to be super direct about your bosses goals for you and your team, and how you can best meet them. Ask specific questions about their communication style and preferences.
“The easiest way to is to find out and ask,” says Palazzolo. “‘How often should I check in with you? If I come across a stumbling block, what’s the best way to reach out to you?’ Find out. Don’t guess. Make sure you’re understanding exactly what’s expected of you.”
2. Personal lives are a bigger part of the workplace now–but not all bosses are on board.
Both Williams and Palazzolo emphasize that bosses and employees that get to know each other tend to form more supportive teams.
“By and large the best boss-employer relationships have a level of personal depth. You have a level of empathy and can help look out for one another,” says Williams.
But not all bosses want to hear about your weekend or the problem you’re having with your brother-in-law. In that case, you have to find other ways of communicating and forming bonds. Williams suggests breaking the ice by asking about your boss’s previous work experiences and what they learned in other positions, which allows for reflection and honesty without the pressure of talking about your current workplace.
And when it comes to conversations about that current workplace, ask open-ended questions to try to learn what they want, then pin down your to-do list with more specific queries.
“A lot of anticipation is required,” says Williams. “Whenever possible, clarify asking what it is that they want. Pose it from the perspective of, ‘I want to help you to perform.’”
3. It’s okay if your boss plays favorites, but be strategic as to how you play back.
Lots of bosses have their pet employees–the ones they get along with particularly well, the ones they know they can dump extra projects onto, the ones who just to seem to curry favor for no particular reason. If this sounds like your manager, consider how you can be strategic in developing a positive, confident relationship.
Insecurity and anxiety, says Williams, don’t just ruin romantic relationships.
“Desperation sneaks into professional relationships as well, and ‘Like me!’ tends to backfire. Hold back, and let your performance be the key to ingratiating yourself. You’re not even talking about what you’re bringing to the table, you just bring it.”
And don’t forget about forming strong relationships with your coworkers, particularly if your boss’s affections are distributed arbitrarily. Performing as a strong team player and an independent leader is a great way to distinguish yourself.
“When other people like you, that triggers to the boss that you might be someone who’s worth paying attention to.”
4. Know when it’s time to part ways with a boss who’s holding you back.
It is possible to develop a productive relationship with a challenging boss, but it’s also important to know when it might be beneficial to move on.
“Choosing your boss is really important in terms of your career,” says Williams. “You can have a bad boss and learn as much as you can from them, but if they’re starting to impede your morale, and you can’t separate this bad boss from you and your performance, that’s a warning sing.”
5. Considering a new job? Don’t forget to think about what kind of boss you’d like to have, and be on the lookout for that.
Knowing what kind of person you’d like to work for can be an important key to your success, and while it’s not always something you can truly control, you can be on the lookout for hints as to what kind of manager a person might be. Williams recommends paying careful attention during interviews to a person’s office, their behavior in an interview setting, and what kinds of questions they ask.
An entrepreneur, or a boss with an “innovator” personality, for example, will be someone who will challenge you continually and present new opportunities for growth–but they won’t necessarily manage you actively, you’ll likely have to do a lot of the leg work.
“The innovator’s office is generally speaking a mess,” says Williams. “This person is more likely to check their email or smartphone over the course of a conversation. You can see their wheels turning. They talk more about themselves.”
A boss who’s less comfortable with forming more personal relationships, meanwhile, is less likely to “have personal photos. All of [their] office supplies have to do with the office, you don’t get any indication of personal interests.”
“The kinds of questions they ask you help indicate what management style they have. Someone who’s more ‘ice queen’ will ask a lot of open-ended questions about what you’ve done in the past, what kind of responsibility you’ve had, “says Williams, whereas “A micromanager wants to know specific details.”
Additionally, Palazzolo recommends finding out more about the person’s history with the company, particularly their tenure.
Ultimately, the best thing you can do for your relationship with your current or future boss is to view it as something that requires active management and development for maximum benefit.
“A great boss changes your career. Carefully consider your boss and be prepared to take an ‘innovator’ role yourself–it’s not just up to them to reveal themselves it’s up to you to ask the questions.”