START LISTENING, EARN THEIR TRUST — AND REMEMBER THEY’RE NOT YOUR PARENT, SAYS EXPERT
Just started your first job — and having problems getting on with your ‘nightmare’ boss?
When you’re new to the world of work — or at least, your first ‘proper’ job — it can be hard to know how to handle a boss you don’t immediately click with.
Like many graduates, you may have assumed that you’d done the hard part in getting the job — and feel disappointed or stressed that the reality of actually doing the job isn’t as rosy as you’d hoped.
But before you brand your boss a ‘nightmare’, take some time to consider what’s really going on and whether there are ways to you can try to work better with your boss (sometimes called ‘managing up’). Are you sure they’re that bad — or have you just not figured them out yet? And are your expectations of them realistic — or do you need to adjust your own thinking a little?
For example, if you’re brimming with confidence and enthusiasm but haven’t yet earned your boss’s trust, you shouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t given you loads of responsibility yet. Especially if you only started last week…(!)
“Navigating the employee-boss relationship can be tricky for new graduates in their first ‘big’ job after university,” says Richard Boston, author of new book The Boss Factor: 10 Lessons in Managing Up for Mutual Gain (published in January 2018 and available to buy on Amazon now).
“Depending on the experience you’ve had of jobs and bosses in the past, it can be hard to work out what’s normal, and how to handle things if you don’t get off to a smooth start.
“Teething problems are normal — so it’s nothing to panic about. Just remember, you have one excellent reason to make things work: your relationship with your boss is likely to be one of the defining factors that determines whether you thrive (or simply survive) in your role.
“In fact, the primary reason people leave their jobs is the relationship they have with their boss. We also know that a worrying proportion of people are already working out how to leave their job within 6-12 months of starting it. That’s a real shame, when it’s likely that a few simple steps could have been taken to greatly improve the relationship.”
And there’s another reason it’s a smart investment to work on this stuff. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this may not be the only tricky boss you have during your career, so gaining some ‘boss management skills’ early on will give you a head-start when dealing with other managers you’ll encounter in the future.
Drawing on some of the “10-lessons in managing up” in his book, Richard spoke to Graduate Fog about how new graduates can better understand and manage your boss, so that your time working for them is as smooth, stress-free and successful as possible…
1) DO approach it like a grown-up — your boss isn’t your mum
Some people continue to make this mistake throughout their career, but it’s especially common among new graduates in their first job after university: treating their boss as a kind of surrogate parent, or schoolteacher. “Most people aren’t even aware of it,” Richard says. “It’s a subconscious thing that sets up a whole load of unhealthy expectations and patterns of behaviour.”
Weirdly, it’s also perpetuated by a lot of bosses, who may have used the same mindset with their own bosses, says Richard. “This is for the simple reason that, like all of us, they first learned how to lead from their parents. Unfortunately, this mind-set can be unhelpful, bringing a whole load of assumptions (about who calls the shots, where responsibility lies, who’s looking after whom, who needs to stay out of trouble, and so on).
Instead, Richard suggests approach the relationship it as a partnership between two adults. “One may have more experience, a higher salary and more positional power, but you’re both human beings and you’ll do a far better job working together as a team than you will if one of you is acting the child.”
2) DO work out what makes your boss tick
“You can’t work out how to influence your boss until you understand how they see the world — so seek first to understand them, before asking or expecting them to understand you,” says Richard. “Ask yourself what is driving their behaviour. That’s vital data that you need in order to decide how best to respond to your boss and how they’re likely to respond to you. Their habits will be driven by two things: their needs, and their mind-set. Get your head around those and you’ll be able to predict, influence and truly collaborate with them.
“Start with their needs. Take some time to work out what needs they’re trying to get met. Do they care most about looking competent in front of their own boss, being liked by the team, feeling in control, maintaining their own job security so they can be confident they can provide for their family or setting themselves up well for the next promotion? Study them carefully to work out what makes them tick.”
“Next, assess their mind-set: their beliefs, assumptions and expectations. These are what drive the logical side of their decision-making. What are their assumptions about you and other graduates or new joiners? What do they expect of you in this role? What are their assumptions about their role as your boss, or about the organisation in you’re working for?”
If this sounds like a pain, remember that it’s time well spent. “Investing time in studying and understanding your boss is the smartest thing you can do,” says Richard. “Once you understand them, you’re a whole lot closer to influencing them.”
3) DO bring solutions, not problems
Most bosses deal with dozens of problems every day — so staff who add new ones aren’t perceived favourably. “What bosses really value are employees who spot problems on their behalf and come to them either with a solution, preferably involving three or four viable options to choose from,” says Richard.
“Some bosses may want to hear which option you prefer and why — others may prefer hearing the pros and cons of each but would rather take the decision themselves,” he says. Or you may find it’s a bit of both — your boss may be inconsistent about whether they want (or go with) your opinion or not. “Just because they wanted you to decide last time, don’t assume they’ll want that next time,” says Richard. “A good boss’s preference will depend on the situation: how serious the problem is, how well-equipped you are to decide on the best solution, and so on.”
4) DO rein in your appetite for responsibility
Desperate to get stuck in and really push yourself? Calm down — there’s plenty of time. “It’s common for new graduates to have a real appetite for taking on responsibility, to be proactive and take on bigger challenges,” says Richard. “While it’s true that we need to stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zones in order to develop and grow, it’s important this happens at the right pace.” New graduates often forget is that their boss is ultimately responsible for everything they do (especially if you screw up!), so it’s reasonable for them to expect you to earn their trust before they give you the extra responsibilities you crave.
5) DO earn your boss’s trust
Richard’s book describes nine factors (or ‘levers’) that influence how much people trust us — with the first three being the most important. “Firstly, your boss must have faith in your competence,” he explains. “It’s vital they believe you have the intelligence, insight, creativity and skills to complete the task well. A good boss will accept that you’re there to learn and will offer sufficient support to bridge a small gap in one or two of those areas, but if it’s a yawning chasm it’ll be too hard for them to let go. Importantly, any boss will struggle to give you a second chance if you wildly oversell yourself or bite off far more than you can chew: taking on too much or too many responsibilities can mean you drop the ball so badly that they’ll find it hard to trust you as much in future.
6) DO prove you’re a team player
Richard calls the second factor ‘benevolence’. “To trust you, your boss need to know you’re both on the same side,” he explains. “If you come across as self-serving, focused on your own agenda, success or career progression then they’ll resist giving you responsibility because they’ll worry that you’ll let them down or use it against them.” Richard gives the example of a graduate called Mike who offered to take on a complex scheduling task for Jen, a more experienced member of the team. Once he’d done it he then bragged to their mutual boss about the improvements he’d made to the process without first discussing those with Jen. When Jen told her boss the experience had left her feeling foolish, undermined and betrayed, the boss wasn’t impressed with Mike. In other words, when you’re given responsibility, make sure you’re still seen as a team player, not going for solo glory — especially if that undermines others in your team.
7) DO be boringly reliable
The third factor when building trust with your boss is predictability. “To give you additional responsibilities and to trust you in general, your boss needs to feel you’re reliable.” As old-fashioned as it sounds, the more predictable you are — the more reliably you demonstrate the same behaviours in response to the same situations or requests — the easier it is to trust you as you’ll have a strong track record. “Just make sure you’re predictable in a good way,” Richard clarifies. “I once had a colleague who reliably missed deadlines, every single time. That only meant I could trust him to miss deadlines!”
8) DO know when (and how) to challenge
“Only the worst bosses want a team of people working for them who are all totally compliant all of the time — devotees who are 100% committed but won’t challenge anything,” Richard says (drawing our attention to the diagram below). “Courage is key to adding genuine value; to challenging group think; to giving feedback; to being bold, adventurous and entrepreneurial.” However, if that courage is expressed purely rebelliously, it can prove problematic for everyone, including the rebel. “You wind up back in that parent-child dynamic,” he points out (see 1) above).
Richard urges recent graduates to balance your displays of courage with displays of commitment. “The strongest contributors — the true trail-blazers — are those who are fully committed to what the team is there to achieve and at the same time willing to challenge their bosses, their colleagues and themselves to be better. As long as it’s done with a strong foundation of trust — with your boss and with your teammates — it’ll be valued.”
Another important skill is… knowing when to give it a rest! “Relentless challenges are exhausting to be on the receiving end of — few bosses will enjoy a climate of constant challenge and change. Your boss, and your colleagues, will appreciate a little bit of coasting from time to time. We all need positive feedback, and to feel that the work we’re doing is good enough that it doesn’t always need to be improved.”
* DO YOU HAVE A ‘NIGHTMARE’ BOSS?
Will you follow Richard’s advice? And do you have any tips and tricks you’ve learned yourself, which have helped you to ‘manage up’? We’d love to hear from you – so please share your experiences below…