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Is Your Boss Easier to Train Than a Dog?

By Rich Wellins, Ph.D.

Richard S. Wellins, Ph.D. Even the very word, “boss,” conjures up an image of a leader who just plain sucks. Recently, my sister accused me of being too bossy around the care of my mom, a pattern she said came from being a manager for too long. She is a clinical psychologist, so her insights are at least 50 percent accurate.

The recent attempt by Zappos at creating a holacracy, a work environment with no bosses, proves, at least for the short term, some form of leadership is around to stay. And so it should be. DDI’s own research (and that of many others) unquestionably proves the impact a great leader can have on organizational performance and the engagement of those they work with. Unfortunately, our research also shows that only 1 out of 4 employees feel they are working for their best boss ever!

For some of us, the relationships with our managers can range from minor annoyance to downright, “I’m out of this place.” But, for the majority of us, we work hard every day at getting along with our leader. The truth be told, most bosses are not jerks. As the figure below shows, the normal distribution comes into play.  To the left are the bad ones, to the right are the great ones. At a recent global conference, we had hundreds of people post words, or draw their image of a great or lousy boss.  (Sorry guys, the best were, more often, of another gender).

Awful or Great Boss

In my book with Tacy Byham, Your First Leadership Job, we have a chapter for new leaders entitled, “What Your Boss Really Wants From You.” I’ve picked some of the tips that have stood the test of time, through my lens as a boss for three decades. Using these tips should help you “train” your boss and build a great working relationship. You just might find it is easier to train a boss than a dog!

Get personal

I have heard too many people say that you should draw a clear line between work and personal life. That can often lead to a cold and detached relationship with your leader. I’m not suggesting that your boss become your best friend, but I am encouraging you to get personal. Learn about educational backgrounds, family, hobbies, and involvement in community organizations. If you talk about work at home, it’s okay to talk at work about home.

Of course, you need to use your best judgment on what may be too personal. And, some bosses are very private and may not be inclined to share. Pushing them will only hurt your relationship. Getting personal is also a two-way street. If you share about yourself, it is likely your boss will share something in return.

Get off on the right foot—and stay there

Is Your Boss Easier to Train Than a Dog?Six months into her new job, Ashley was in a state of distress. She had no clear idea of what was expected of her. When her boss had an update meeting with her, he seemed mildly annoyed that no progress was made on a key project. It is paramount to work with your boss to clearly understand his/her expectations. This includes expectations for your role, and, just as important, expectations for working styles (e.g., how often to meet, preferences for type of communication, degree of autonomy, or who to network with).

This should be a two-way relationship. And, like any relationship, a good one not only takes an investment of time and effort, but it’s also one that you own! You need to communicate what you want from your boss. In today’s work world, expectations are constantly changing, and frequent calibration is important. Discussions around future career and development should be on the table as well. We developed a checklist for your first six months as a leader, with a set of actions you should specifically engage in with your boss. You can find this in the Bonus Chapters and Tools section of the Your First Leadership Job website.

Become an advisor, not a whiner

My past boss, who happened to be a good one, was kicking off one of our more challenging business planning meetings. He had, as always, an interesting, but relatively common-sense, piece of advice: “I like to surround myself with positive people. I’d rather spend my time with people who have ideas and advice to tackle our challenges than to whine about them.”

Your boss’s respect for you increases exponentially when you help solve problems, not cause them. Don’t mistake this for “buttering up your boss” (or other phrases we choose not to use). It’s about becoming a respected advisor. How will you know if you’re doing this well? Easy—your boss will begin to seek out your thoughts and advice.

Cut your boss a break

You don’t deserve to be belittled, bullied, or mistreated—period. That said, your boss is a human being, too. We’ve heard employees hold their bosses in contempt for the smallest offenses because they expect absolute perfection. Take Arun. He told us that one day, everything seemed to be going wrong. During his last meeting of the day, he lost his temper. “I didn’t yell, I just got angry,” he said later.

Arun’s anger surge had a definite effect on his team members; they seemed to avoid him for weeks. You’ll make mistakes, and so will your boss. You might want to provide feedback, but a few missteps might not justify putting your boss in the dog house forever. And, on the other side of the equation, it doesn’t hurt to maintain or enhance your boss’s self-esteem by paying a sincere compliment every now and then!

At the end of the day, few of us can choose our bosses. They choose us. But, that does not mean you are a victim. You play an equal role in choosing the type of relationship you want. And, with considerable skill and a touch of luck, you may actually be able to transform your manager into your best boss ever!

Rich Wellins, Ph.D., is a senior vice president at DDI.

Posted: 28 Apr, 2016,
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