All strong relationships are built on trust. Your relationship with your boss is no different.
Recently, I’ve worked with two successful, ambitious, high-performing executives who are facing the same challenge. They excel at maintaining productive, positive relationships with the people they lead, but cannot do the same with their own bosses. They succeed at managing down but struggle to manage up.
According to my first client, Hannah, her boss is self-centered, disrespectful, and “doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Hannah reports that she once prepared a presentation for her boss to deliver. The day her boss was to give the presentation, it was clear she hadn’t ever looked at the slides, despite Hannah’s multiple offers to answer questions and rehearse the presentation. Frustrated at her lack of preparation, Hannah walked out and left her boss to handle the presentation on her own. Later, she made it a point to reference the event in a public forum, calling her out and humiliating her boss. They didn’t speak for weeks. When they finally did, Hannah’s boss suggested it may be best that Hannah find another job.
My second client, Simone, says her boss is selfish. She rarely responds to emails in a timely fashion, which tells Simone that her boss doesn’t care about her or the team she leads – she clearly has favorites. Simone thinks the end result is obvious: Her team will never get the resources it needs, and she’ll never get promoted.
In each of these instances, I asked my clients questions to help them understand their boss’s points of view. Hannah, what could be the reason that your boss didn’t study the slides you prepared? Could she be dealing with family issues, work emergencies, or 500 emails a day? Maybe she trusted you to have prepared a clear presentation that didn’t require much study on her part? If you felt disrespected and undervalued, how do you think she felt when you called her out in public?
In Simone’s case, I facilitated a meeting between both parties. Simone’s boss surprised her by saying that among all teams, it’s Simone she devotes the most resources to. She asked Simone to believe she has good intentions before rushing to judgment. Simone and her boss agreed to give one another the one thing they needed most to move forward; for Simone, it meant one monthly two-hour check-in with her team. For her boss, she asked that they both work together to rebuild trust.
While Simone’s and Hannah’s situations are different, they both failed to manage up in the same ways. Here’s what their errors can teach you about how to manage up successfully.
One face-to-face conversation is better than 100 emails
Simone’s boss described their facilitated meeting as a “breakthrough,” one which would have never happened over email or through a messaging app. Real-time, honest communication with your boss should happen face-to-face – in person if possible, virtual if not. Written communication leaves more room for ambiguity, which could lead to misunderstandings that snowball over time. A face-to-face meeting allows you to clear up ambiguities in real-time, and to pick up on non-verbal cues, which hold crucial information.
Trust requires honesty and vulnerability
Simone and Hannah both withheld their honest feelings about the struggles they were having. This widened the gap between them and their bosses, making open communication even harder to achieve. Their egos also kicked in, protecting them from honestly examining how they’ve contributed to their miscommunications. Let go of ego and embrace vulnerability – it’s the foundation of a trust-based relationship.
Assume best intentions
For both Hannah and Simone, the default explanations for their boss’ missteps assumed the worst intentions: She is selfish. She doesn’t care. She has favorites, and I’m not one of them. If you don’t know the full story, don’t write one that automatically casts your boss as the villain. Instead, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and practice empathy. Ask questions that center on your boss’s needs and leave any pre-judgment at the door. In Hannah’s case, following the presentation, she could have said, “If you didn’t have enough time to look at the presentation, is there anything I can do to make this process smoother for you next time? How can I support you?”
A great relationship with your boss can not only impact your career path but your everyday success at work, too. Manage up by communicating openly and honestly and assuming the best intentions when things go wrong. Don’t let your ego get in the way of building a trust-based, fulfilling, positive relationship.
This article was originally posted on Inc.com