Take It One Boss at a Time, One Day at a Time

Take It One Boss at a Time, One Day at a Time

Based on It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Jossey Bass, September 2010)

Because every boss has his own style, preferences and habits for managing, the best way to maintain a high-quality relationship with him is by establishing ground rules. At the outset of your relationship, have a conversation outlining how you are going to work together. Some corporate or organizational policies may exist to define some aspects of your working relationship. Clarify exactly where, when and how you are going to observe and practice those policies whenever you are working on any tasks or project. Make a commitment to follow these practices and then take responsibility for following through on them.

You also need to discuss some of the broader goals you have for working together, like maintaining certain levels of productivity and quality standards, making a valuable contribution, and achieving measurable results. You might even discuss subtle rules of conduct that are expected of you, such as work hours, attitude, attire and making personal calls at work.

But the most important thing you need to agree upon from the get-go is how you plan to communicate with each other. Make sure you discuss scheduling regular, ongoing conversations about work and confirm the following goals for every conversation:

  • Walking away with a mutual understanding of the goals of an assignment. 
  • Spelling out guidelines and parameters. 
  • Specifying a clear timeline of deliverables.

Suggest that you make a habit of asking each other clarifying questions and discussing step-by-step instructions for any new task. Finally, try to agree that you will each take notes and check at the end of each conversation that you are on the same page.

Your various bosses have different backgrounds, personalities, styles, ways of communicating, work habits, motivations, levels of ability and skill, and accomplishments. Some are more engaged than others. One boss wants to spell out every detail for you, while another boss expects you to figure out everything on your own. To create the best working relationship with each boss, you learn and understand how each boss works and customize your approach for each accordingly.

I’m not suggesting that you cater to the whims of each boss or go happily along with downright bad management practices. But understanding their whims and management weaknesses is not all bad. When you know a boss’s whims and weaknesses, then you have more tools in your arsenal of solutions with that manager. The only way to learn what works and doesn’t with each boss is through those one-one-one management conversations. As you meet individually with each boss, the differences between them will jump out at you. Over time, you’ll be able to tune in to that boss and adjust your approach as needed.

[Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders and a sought-after speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder of RainmakerThinking, a management-training firm. Tulgan is the author of Managing Generation X, It’s Okay to Be the Boss and many other books, including It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss. He has written pieces for numerous publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, The Harvard Business Review and Human Resources. He can be reached via email, on Twitter and on Facebook. His free weekly workplace video is available on his Web site.]