3 Cardinal Rules For Managing Your Boss

Don't be your own worst enemy when it comes to interactions with your boss. Instead of blaming him for your problems, learn his style and adapt.

Robert Hewes, PhD, Senior Partner, Camden Consulting Group

July 15, 2014

5 Min Read

The biggest problem I see with IT manager-employee relationships is a lack of communication. Engineers tend to be much more comfortable with technical challenges than bonding, meaning a lot is left unsaid. This leads to misunderstandings. We also naturally assume we have all the right answers.

Listen up: You don't (have all the right answers), and you need to stop saying things like, "If only he would [insert gripe]." You can't change your boss any more than you can change your spouse. Your own behavior and approach to interactions are, however, 100% in your control.

Cardinal Rule 1: You can't change your boss's style, but you can understand and adapt to it. Write down words that accurately describe your manager's style. Is she a "big picture" or more detail-oriented person? Cost-focused or power-focused? Who in the organization does he or she want to impress, and why?

Example: I had a client who struggled with a numbers-focused boss. The manager was all about metrics while, you guessed it, the direct report was more big picture. Meeting after meeting, week after week, the conflict intensified. I counseled him to embrace the numbers: "You know your boss is going to ask for them, so be ready and get better with the numbers. Be prepared." He didn't have to love stats, but he did need to be able to give his boss information in a numbers-oriented manner. Once that happened the relationship improved dramatically.

Thoroughly understand your boss's approach and tailor your interaction style to align.

Cardinal Rule 2: Bosses get to make decisions. Recognize when a decision has been made, even if you disagree, and get to work executing.

A good boss encourages input, discussion, and even respectful dissent. But at some point, talking ends and execution begins. Decisiveness likely helped your boss become a manager. He gets to make the final call. It's your job to execute. This is an area IT people trip over all the time. Engineers like to be right and sometimes don't get that, just because a boss accepts input or recommendations, it doesn't mean he or she is indecisive.

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Learn to identify which phase of the decision-making process you're in, and act accordingly. To break it down simply, there are three phases: Discussion and information-gathering, the decision, and moving forward. I often see people endlessly revisiting done deals. Don't get stuck in this trap. Learn to shift smoothly into execution mode. Now, I'm not saying that you should never revisit a decision if new information arises, but you should do it explicitly and purposefully.

Cardinal Rule 3: Operate in a "no surprises" mode and get the right information to your boss in a timely, effective manner.

We've all heard the phrase, "It's easier to get forgiveness than permission." Be careful with that -- communicating effectively with your boss is critical to a productive work relationship. Technologists who get really good at this have a huge advantage. If you're thinking, "talking isn't my thing," take a step back. Think of it as setting up a good information flow diagram, with your boss at the center. For a given project, ask: "What kind of information does my manager want?" and "How often does the boss need updates, and in what format?" Again, think about your boss's style, and tailor data to how he or she prefers to receive it, not how you like to deliver it.

Another communication must-have is to operate in a "no surprises" mode. No manager likes to be in the dark. Think of the last time you were blindsided with some important news, either personally or professionally. It was not fun. Many times, when technologists find themselves in a problematic situation, they fail to tell the boss early enough. They think, "Maybe I'll get out of the jam and no one will be the wiser." But do you want to take that chance? This is one of the clearest and most objective behaviors you can adopt to improve your relationship with your boss. Sure, it takes courage to admit you made a mistake or hit a problem you can't fix. My advice: Every week, evaluate your work landscape and list all the items your boss should know about. If you made a mistake, own it and suggest ways to make it right.

A final coach's tip: Look up from your smartphone next time you're in a strategy meeting. Become an astute observer of how colleagues from other departments interact with your boss. Notice what the salespeople chat about, or how the CFO interacts. How do their actions differ from what you're doing? Determine what behaviors are effective and not effective. Adopt the effective ones and avoid the others. This lab experiment is available at every interaction and meeting. In fact, it turns every meeting into a learning opportunity.

Unless your manager is truly dysfunctional or abusive -- in which case, you have bigger problems -- adapting to her personality and style will let you work as a team and not be at odds all the time. Your working relationship with your boss is pivotal in getting resources, buy-in, and support for the projects that matter to you. Although it is vital for your career that you maximize this relationship, it's also personally rewarding when work is productive and satisfying.

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About the Author(s)

Robert Hewes

PhD, Senior Partner, Camden Consulting Group

Robert Hewes is a senior partner with Camden Consulting Group, with oversight for leadership development and management training. A skilled strategist, facilitator, and coach, Hewes designs and delivers executive coaching and leadership development services for Camden's clients. Bob has a PhD and Master's degree in engineering sciences from Harvard University as well as Master's and Bachelor's degrees in electrical engineering from the University of New Hampshire. Camden Consulting Group is a consulting firm that provides focused, practical, customized, and integrated human capital management, leadership development, executive coaching, and training services to organizations and their employees. 

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