If Your Boss Could Talk

Liz Ryan

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Working men and women have a tough way to go these days. Longer hours, more work, fewer perks and bennies: and companies are not quite as focused on being “employers of choice" as they were a couple of years ago. But if you think your boss is the source of your higher stress level, you might be surprised. Being a boss - fending off pressure from above and below both - is harder than ever these days. Managers have smaller budgets and fewer staff members to accomplish a lot more work as cash-strapped companies frantically try to turn their fortunes around. Sure, there are incompetent, unfriendly and just-plain-evil bosses out there, but in our experience, the majority of middle managers are reasonable people who are trying to do the best they can for the employees they supervise AND the higher-ups.

Skeptical? You might not think that your supervisor is just as interested in a fair, friendly and reasonable work environment as you are - but he or she has lots of other fish to fry, too. So we've polled middle managers, and developed this list of ten things your manager wants you know - called “If Your Boss Could Talk, [What He or She Would Say]. " (Of course your manager can talk - but not every manager feels comfortable sharing these pet peeves and wishes with employees. Do any of these fit your situation?)

Here goes:

1. When I am abrupt and impersonal, it's probably because I'm doing something I don't want to do.

Feel shut down by your boss sometimes? Your great ideas may interest your manager personally, but he or she may not have the approval or the budget dollars to say “yes" very often right now. If your manager is acting squirrelly or suddenly gets very “corporate, " it may be because he or she isn't comfortable telling you that The Answer Is No. A rough exterior helps to shield your boss from the reality that it's him (or her) - not a title or a job description - disappointing you once again. A good tactic when this happens, is to ask, “Is this topic uncomfortable for you?" That might throw your manager off enough for him or her to open up and tell you the real problem.

2. I care about a lot of stuff that you care about, but I can't make a federal case out of every slight that you experience - you have to let me pick my battles.

Your boss is, among other things, the one who's supposed to stick up for you when those punks in Marketing or the bureaucrats in Accounting or anybody else in the company does you wrong. But there are only so many battles that one person can fight! So, your boss wants to tell you, I have to let some of these wrangles slide. Don't be disgusted when I don't march off to blast someone in HR on your behalf because they goofed up your insurance claim again. You gotta let things go sometimes.

3. Don't try to make me King Solomon, especially about the small stuff.

Your boss is saying, I know that you and your co-worker both want the cubicle next to the window, but I really don't want to have to make that call - I'd rather see you play Rock-Paper-Scissors, if I had my way. When you try to put me in the King Solomon mode, somebody ends up being upset about something really inconsequential. I'll be very grateful if sometimes you and your colleague can figure these things out on your own. You don't even have to tell me when it happens.

4. I don't want to watch you like a hawk, so don't give me a reason to.

Here the message is, with precious few perks to dole out, I'd love to at least give you some schedule flexibility, the little that the workload allows. I'd let you come in and leave the office when you choose (roughly) as long as the work gets done, if you're a great employee in every other way. So make my job easier, please, and get your work done and don't disappear just when you're most likely to be needed. I can give you a little slack if you work with me, but if you don't, I'll have to come down on you like a ton of bricks.

5. You will always be more familiar with everything about your job than I will ever be.

When we talk, your boss wants to say, Remind me of what you're working on, what's causing you trouble and what's going well. Remind me of what's important to you and what you need from me. It's really hard to remember the priorities, needs, and obstacles of every one of my department members, so any help you can give me is welcome. I do value you, but you're just much closer to your work than I am. I have a different set of priorities, like our department's goals, budget, timelines and hurdles. If I'm micro-managing you in your own work, let me know.

6. When you're angry with me, let me know.

Boss wants to say: I've got a lot on my mind - you could spend two weeks on hard stares, monosyllabic answers to my questions, and other pointed signals that you're mad at me and I might still miss the message. So just tell me! Pick a moment when I'm not up to my eyeballs in crises, and ask me for a quick meeting. Tell me what I did that ticked you off and why it was a bad call. I promise to try and listen and not be defensive. If you don't tell me, how will I know?

7. Don't ask me to tell you what you know I can't talk about.

Are there layoffs coming? Is a big customer planning to shut its doors? Are we merging with XYZ company? If I know, I can’ tell you. If I could tell you, I would. Don't ask me to tell you what you know I can't, and don't be offended because you think we're friends and I should spill the beans. Can't do it. Don't create tension by making this unreasonable request.

8. Bring me problems as far in advance as possible.

I love to be surprised when things are going better than expected. I love to hear that a problem was solved or some other good fortune befalls our department. Don't surprise me with bad news, please. Let me know way in advance when something's not working. At the last minute, problems are much harder to solve, so feel the fear and tell me anyway, “Project ABC is behind schedule. " I may shoot the messenger just a little, but it's better than my reaction will be further down the road.

9. Create a feedback-network to give me painless advice on my management style.

Here's how this works. If I badger Sally mercilessly and I tend to ignore Joe, then trade feedback bits and deliver them to me in a friendly say. So Sally, say to me, “You know Stan, you're probably not aware of it but at times you seem to miss what Joe is telling you, " and then I can take that without being defensive. And Joe, you say to me, “You know what, Stan, for some funny reason, even though you're a patient guy in general, you seem to give Sally a lot of grief. " That way, no one has to take the feedback-heat on themselves and I still get the message. This would really be a gift, and I promise to try and take the advice as it's intended.

10. Don't do anything stupid.

I can help you out if you goof up to a certain degree. But if you mis-use the company credit card, download garbage from the internet, or slug a co-worker, I'm out of the loop - you're gone. So help me out, and don't do anything stupid.

What's the gist of what your boss is telling you? Let's work together. Why create tension in the relationship when the environment has enough of that already? You might as well team up with your boss (and vice versa) to lessen the stress and get the job done that much more easily. And if you put yourself in your boss's shoes just a little, you'll be surprised how much you learn. You might even consider becoming a boss yourself!

Liz Ryan is a former Fortune 500 HR leader, a workplace expert and the founder of the global online network WorldWIT (http://www.worldwit.org ). She writes the workplace column for Business Week online, her own Business Mom and Job Jungle blogs at http://www.worldwit.org/blogs.aspx , and speaks internationally on women in the workplace, work and life, and the post-millennial corporate lifestyle. Liz lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and five children.

If you're looking for advice or have questions related to your job, just ask Liz! You can email Liz at lizryan@worldwit.org.


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