Many people struggle with the relationship they have with their boss (or “superior” or “leader” or “commanding officer” or whatever term is appropriate in the setting. For simplicity, I shall use ‘boss’ here). In coaching conversations, I regularly hear things like:
· My boss almost never has time for me
· My boss seems to mainly criticize my work … and me
· My relationship with my boss is superficial – I don’t know her as a person
· I feel nervous whenever I speak with my boss, I feel I am being evaluated and judged
· I recognize that my boss has more experience than I do and that she knows more than I do in certain areas. I wish she would invest in me, teach me and mentor me. That rarely happens.
Some people simply want to vent. They share this just to get it off their chest. They are locked into the belief that the problem is “the boss”, and that they have very little (or no) power to change this. They sense that they are stuck and that things are very unlikely to change. Chances are high that they will be proven right. Things will not change. At some point, they may move on or their boss may move on and that may change things – but no one knows how far off that is.
Things will not change … as long as the mental model in force remains that “the problem is the boss”. Look again at the five quotes above. They are not really statements about the boss. They are statements about the relationship. And, while we do indeed have limited power to change other people, we have a lot of influence over the relationships we are in – including the relationship with our boss.
When people step out of this victim mentality, they typically come to see that the boss has a strong, personal and professional interest in having a healthy relationship with her subordinates, a relationship characterized by mutual respect, open communication and trust. It is empowering to discover that the interests are, typically, strongly aligned.
This discovery opens new doors. It makes it easier for the subordinate to ask: “What beliefs, thoughts and actions on my side are getting in the way of a stronger relationship?” When we explore this question in a setting of support and curiosity, we often find that there is an element of fear that is blocking progress. (This fear may go by other names, such as tension, apprehension or anxiety. But, let us simplify and refer to this as ‘fear’). Fear tends to thrive in the shadows. When we bring it into the light, it often dissipates. At least we can manage it better once we have labeled it.
As we move from a mindset of fear to a mindset of taking personal responsibility, we more easily ask questions like:
· Might it strengthen our relationship if I openly share my concerns with my boss, provided I am open to her guidance and I remain solution-oriented?
· How can I be smarter about getting time from my boss? Can I be flexible with respect to timing? Can I make my meeting invitations more compelling? Can I prepare well, so that my boss feels that the time she spends with me is highly productive?
· What would it take for me to initiate a discussion with my boss about how she perceives our relationship, what her expectations are, and what the ideal relationship would look like from her angle?
· Could I simply ask for more coaching and mentoring – making it clear that I acknowledge that my boss has valuable insights to offer? Can I operationalize a positive intent in this area by agreeing a schedule and follow up?
· What would happen if I shed my fear and communicated with my boss as an equal – while acknowledging that we have different roles and responsibilities?
When we ask these questions together, the people I work with become infinitely creative. They generally know the habits of their boss: when the boss goes to work, how they go to work, how they spend their lunch break, what inspires them and so forth. And this knowledge allows us to find smart ways to make change happen. One client, for example, solved the problem of not getting enough time with his boss. He found that calling his boss while she was in her car, driving to work in the morning was a predictably good way to get undisturbed time with his boss.
And if the client knows very little about his boss … well, there is simply some homework to do.
In most settings, we have some kind of boss. The CEO has a strong interest in building a trust-based relationship with the chairperson of the board … and with the other board members. The EVP has a clear interest in building a strong relationship with the CEO. And so forth. Nurturing a stronger relationship with our boss is a great way to practice self-leadership and it is a valuable way to role-model self-leadership. And all true leadership starts with self-leadership. Once we adopt a mindset of taking charge, we may find that it is easier than we anticipated.
Do share: How have YOU contributed to enhancing the relationship with your boss?