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Sunday, September 29, 2013

Career Move: Talk to the Boss

     It was still summer, but for some reason the department secretary asked our city editor whether he was planning to attend the boss’s annual staff cocktail party, generally held in the early fall.
     “No. I’m busy that day,” the guy said.
     “But you don’t even know when it will be,” the secretary protested.
     “I know,” he answered. “I’m still busy that day.”

     The boss – specifically, the top editor of our medium-sized daily – was not a bad person. Kind of distant, though, and committed to a somewhat alien set of standards. I bumped into him once at a big university while I was there on a recruiting trip for reporters and interns.

     As we were chatting with a dean, I mentioned that I preferred to meet students in classroom and one-on-one discussions of newspapering. I wanted to avoid the career-day cattle show in the gym. I also said I didn’t think academic grades were of much value in judging potential talent.
     “Oh, I disagree,” my boss said, “grades are important when you’re looking to hire someone.”
     The exchange was unemotional and actually somewhat academic, probably a good thing since the journalism dean was standing right there witnessing it.
      Interesting, though: Neither the editor nor I pursued the subject, at that time or later back at the office. It was one of a number of well-mannered, superficial fragmentary conversations that came and went without a ripple.
     I continued to recruit up and down the East Coast and Midwest, my personnel philosophy unchanged. The boss continued to “lead” an organization without the slightest interest in establishing and conducting a coherent fundamental way of doing business.

     Now that I think of it, the city editor at the time, who did not outrank me but also was not under my direction, rarely hired anyone I recommended. While the top man disagreed with me by valuing academics more highly, the city editor was more a cops-and-robbers guy than I.
     We all co-existed pleasantly, ignoring the loss of quality, money and opportunity that resulted from our disconnected way of going about the newspaper business. It didn’t seem all that out of the ordinary to us – because it wasn’t. Such thoughtless failure of collaboration is quite common, and by no means confined to journalism management.
     As working people, our relationships with those in authority rarely get the kind of attention they deserve from us, no matter where we are or what we do.
     Worker bees generally do not see it as their place to choose how they will manage this crucial success factor. More often than not, they remain at arm’s length from “The Man (or The Woman)” even after years. Similarly, higher-level managers have no idea what is going on in the jobs of their staff people, to say nothing of what’s going on in their heads.

     There is little sense of a shared experience – and neither party has any interest in the other beyond the nuts and bolts of day-to-day work. There is a tendency for one-way directive behavior from above, with walking-on-eggs inhibition below.
     People don’t get to know each other, because they don’t want to. There is no sense of the potential payoff from shared knowledge and the resultant enrichment of collaboration. It never comes. Truly helpful information never passes between them.
      What a shame. The shallow relationship wastes a lot of possibility, and it cannot sustain stress or facilitate understanding. It limits the potential that could be unlocked by interchanging actively, learning from new ideas, collaborating productively across functions and up and down hierarchies.
     Occasionally, there is accidental or externally generated disturbance to the placid surface. Something happens that abruptly exposes the gulfs in understanding and expectation. Explosive disagreement can erupt. Sometimes people get so mad they say and do things that inflict severe damage on their standing and their ability to influence what happens to them.
     With or without that, the gap is covered without being closed, and the organization resumes its customary undistinguished performance.
     It is not fated to be this way. 

     How about you? Take a moment to review your history with the boss.  Not just your current boss, all the bosses of your life – full-time, part-time, formal and informal.
     How has it gone? From the perspective of shared experience, what has been productive? What was impossible? How much useful exchange of information and ideas has there been?
     Do you feel that some people who were above you or below you or parallel on the organizational chart had partnership potential that no one bothered – or dared – to develop?
     How about it if you are or have been a boss?
     Consider what greater openness, more outreach to build trust, might have contributed to your own achievements and job satisfaction. Could your self-confidence and management smarts have handled it? There undeniably is a perceived threat to one’s status in opening up to lower-ranked staff members.
     The challenge is significantly greater when a junior party decides to seek a more productive relationship with the boss, particularly one who is not forthcoming, perhaps to the point of apparent disrespect or implied hostility.
     This manager is not a shared decision-maker, or even much of a consulter. Ideas and suggestions go nowhere, and on occasion earn something that looks like contemptuous dismissal.

     Your idea may actually turn out to have been right, and you watch in disgust as subsequent events prove it. Sometimes you have to undergo the feelings that come with seeing your idea stolen and implemented as someone else gets the credit.
     A reasonable response to this kind of treatment is to withdraw to “your place,” nursing your wounded pride, turning inward and maybe becoming a bit sour, maybe digging out the resume. Or you might shrug and chalk it up to business as usual, lowering your expectations to match the current reality.
     But if you want to be somebody, you command your personal situation. No matter what is happening, you can do something. When things aren’t going anywhere, what is that something you can do?
     Commit yourself to career management, that's what. First, a critical assessment of status, trends and events. You don’t just sit there and take it if your plan (or your unspecified yearning) is to advance in position, reputation, personal capacity and/or job satisfaction.
     You always have options, and one we think of too infrequently is to influence the boss.
     What? Try to influence that woman? (That guy?) Are you kidding? That forbidding (or cruel, or insensitive, or paranoid, or. . . .) dictator (or choose your negative label)?
     Yes, that one.

     Career management is a business, actually, and we undermine our prospects when we allow personal feelings to control strategy. The way you’re treated is relevant but not determinative.
     Sometimes it just never occurred to us to accept leadership from our manager, so we cruise along at minimum, just getting through the days. Stop that.
     Now we’re going to look at this relationship as an essential function of our career management process, and we’re going to pay a lot of attention to it.
     The example we’re working with is to cooperate with the manager. Do we have the information we need to act effectively? No. We rarely know the boss well enough to know what drives the person, what values could trump others, what makes the person feel good. Instead, we just see a flat cardboard cutout.
     If the boss is basically a good manager, but not very helpful or communicative, it isn’t necessarily easy to get to know the person’s preferences, goals and values. Dictatorial and/or egotistical bosses can be easier to read but harder to deal with.
     So the first task is to respond to the most obvious signals about what is important to the boss. If being on time for meaningless meetings seems to be a big deal, show up a little early. If pompous rhetoric is an occupational hazard here, listen attentively. If silly actions are required, get them done unfailingly, but quickly enough so you can get on to meaningful work.

     With more challenging bosses, this requires patience, tolerance – a lot of both – and a massive effort to control the natural tendency to let one’s disapproval show. Those, among the softest of “soft skills,” are absolutely essential.
     Other conscious skill investments are in listening actively, speaking assertively but respectfully, focusing careful attention on mood signals/body language and implementing detailed strategy management. You plan ahead and employ careful, flexible communication tactics. Every day all day.
     Inevitably, if you keep at it, you’re going to earn some attitude change, a little more room to maneuver and, over time, greater ability to affect decisions.
     Many of us feisty types might might consider this whole approach to be a disgusting display of sycophancy, an unacceptable cop-out. That attitude certainly controlled the early decades of my own career.
     With greater maturity, though, comes clearer recognition of one’s highest values. You might take a new look at key relationships, including the one with the boss. Reflection might reveal what you could derive from more work on productive channels of communication.
     While you're there, it's a career investment. If it's not worth the investment, why are you still there? You don't really know unless you put some work into that most important relationship. Talk to the boss. Then you'll know.

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