8 ways to understand your boss

It’s really easy to call names behind your boss’s back, but what if you can strategize your way to be on the same page as him? After all, he is also a human being.

All of us have heard the saying – people don’t leave organizations, they leave bosses. True to an extent but is it the absolute truth? No. One of the skills I think each one of us needs to pick up is how we manage our bosses. In my work spanning 25 years, I have worked with 9 bosses, 3 male, and the rest female. I am not heading to a gender discussion here. To be a boss is a boss irrespective of gender. There could be gender nuances in your experience and that’s also valid. Here, I am sticking to the subject called boss.
I have been very keen on this subject for a long time now and felt the need to put pen to paper and write about it. Like any of you reading this relationship would understand that it has not been a very easy one for me. If I have to describe it, I would call it a roller coaster ride with its own jerks and ease. And, in this ride, there are a few strategies that I have very effectively used and they served me well. I want to share those with you and you could in turn share yours with me or critique any of mine. That’s also fine.
Here are the 8 strategies (not in any order though):
  • Observe your boss for common ground: To check what matters to him (I am using ‘him’ as general terminology). What does he stand for? What drives him? What are they good at? This strategy gave me enough information relating to my bosses. I got a common ground to build a sound work relationship. This has not been easy for me. I would observe my boss in every meeting, and email communication and saw that the larger vision and mission of the organization were important to him. And that mattered to me as well. So, a common ground was met to tread.
  • When things are not ok, do your tasks: I cannot iterate it more. In times when I was overlooked and felt disconnected, I asked myself this question – What am I here for? And gave it my best shot without allowing the disconnect to come in the way of my work. And sure enough, in the next 3 months, I got noticed! (Not that I was waiting to be noticed, it just happened)
  • Stand up for yourself: There were times when I felt excluded and disrespected. I spoke about it after the emotions settled, not putting the onus on the boss but sharing my own feelings and what I wanted from that interaction. This helped the boss to understand where I was coming from. I remember an episode some years ago. Some of the plant associates’ children were enrolled in engineering courses and there was a demand for books. There was an opportunity to tie up with the biggest library in town to meet this need for a minimum annual payment. My boss sat on it for a long time and did not respond to my emails. In the same week, we had a review meeting with the MD and, in the end, he asked if there were any concerns that we may want to air. Despite knowing that it would not sit well with my boss I aired my concern and the request was granted the very next day! By now you know how my boss would have reacted. For me when it came to standing up for a cause I took the risk because I knew I was doing right! Needless to say, things worked out after a few days.
  • Support the boss to do his best: Always find ways where you could show your boss in a good light in the organization. Here I am not saying that you need to brag or exaggerate. All I am saying is, do it from an authentic space! After all, bosses have their unique qualities and it’s great if we observe them and highlight them.
One of my bosses was not one who would understand emotions. In this case, I took a strengths finder test and gave the report to my boss. He in turn took the test and we had a meeting to see where he could support me and where I would be able to add value. This conversation which was meant to be for half an hour took 2 hours as we were highlighting where we saw the strengths play out in the organizational arena. At the end of it both of us knew exactly how we could support each other. My boss was writing an article on leadership during this ordeal hence he sorted my inputs on how I see the leadership qualities play out and I gave all the relevant examples. He is a prolific writer,  his article got published.
  • Don’t gossip: I know this is juicy and we may want to do it at times. But ask yourself the question – whose purpose is it serving? Or if you want someone’s suggestion to open it up, you may get an alternative perspective! But don’t make your boss sound like a villain!
  • Set your boss up for success: Do whatever is in your role with due dedication and commitment. And add value to your boss’ visibility in the organization. This way, along with your boss you are also setting yourself up for success. My boss is very diligent and is a fast learner, participates, and contributes to all the sessions. So, in one instance, I asked my boss to hand the certificates to participants and stated that I was asking him to do it not because of his position but because he was a diligent and dedicated learner! My boss beamed.
  • Offer feedback to better the relationship: It always helps to give feedback to the boss when necessary, to keep the relationship rust-free and well lubricated. And, help him see what enables and what blocks your performance because the boss is not an antaryami. He will understand when you communicate clearly what you want and need to be successful in your role. I remember an instance (my boss was new) where I felt I was not being trusted on a task as the email read that I had to get the design approved by another person from another organization. This upset me as I had been training for years and I knew the audience quite well. I found a suitable time for a chat with my boss and shared how I felt. The boss liked the fact that I walked up and shared. In fact, this was taken up in the right spirit and people were encouraged to share feedback! From then on, we agreed to share honest and forthright feedback with each other.
  • Acknowledge and accept your mistakes: This I think is one of the most crucial elements to build a relationship. I am forthright in accepting what I am not good at, the mistakes I make very candidly and without justifying myself knowing fully well that it may not land well. It was difficult initially for my boss and with time this was behind us.
It’s worth the while to remember, that bosses, are also human and have the same needs as you and me. If we look at the boss from this lens, work-life becomes easy and jerk-free. Having said this, I am not saying that it is foolproof and every time we get the same results, so experimentation and purity of intention are key for the relationship to build, nurture and sustain in the long run.