If you don't have a great boss, you can complain … or do something about it. Most people complain and do nothing. Steve Arneson, a leadership coach based in Boulder, Colo., urges you to act, instead.
"This is the most important business relationship you have. If you don't get it right, life is miserable Monday to Friday, and even on the weekend, as you are wrapped up in the issues of work," he said in an interview.
But he dismisses the most obvious option: changing your boss's behaviour. It won't happen. Instead, you have to change yourself – your attitude and behaviour. If you work on that, taking responsibility for the relationship, it will improve.
Your attitude likely stems from a story you have built, in which you are always right and the boss is invariably wrong, if not evil. You never ask yourself when you might be the black-hatted character. And you may not spend much time trying to understand what the boss wants and thinks – where he is coming from.
Start by studying your boss to understand that perspective.
Mr. Arneson has 10 questions to ask yourself in his book What Your Boss Really Wants from You, but feels the most crucial is, What is your superior trying to accomplish?
"Your boss has a mandate. Do you know what it is and how you fit?" he asks. The boss also has a philosophical view about your unit and the work it handles. What experts does your boss cherish? Is he a traditionalist or always trying to break the mould?
Once you have thought about those issues, check by asking your boss, "How would you describe what you're trying to do in this role?" He's probably proud of his mission and will expound on his philosophy and specific objectives.
Also ask yourself about your manager's relationship like with his own boss. That relationship can have an impact on which projects you work on, how you're perceived by senior management, whether you'll be promoted, and your pay or bonus. So look at how those two interact, how your boss talks about his own superior, and what authority your boss has – is he controlling his own agenda or just a glorified message boy? Try to cultivate a direct relationship with your boss's boss, particularly if the connection between the two seems weak.
Next, consider how your boss sees you. Write down your top 10 strengths, and then transfer the ones that your boss values to another list. When Mr. Arneson asks executives to try this exercise, they usually realize that only half of their top skills are valued by their bosses.
"There are things we do well that our boss doesn't value. And that drives us crazy," he said. Instead, focus on the skills the boss appreciates. You can also try to look for ways to demonstrate your capability in a skill he doesn't fully appreciate, perhaps partnering with a colleague on a project outside your regular scope of work, or proposing to do something outside of work time.
Another critical question is your work history with your manager. You may have been inherited by your boss when he took over, or been hired by him, or have been peers beforehand. Each situation can have quite different implications.
"Consider your work history with your boss, because he probably isn't forgetting it," Mr. Arneson said. One exercise is to draw a horizontal time line for the period you have known each other, placing positive events above the line and negative one below.
With this prelude completed, take responsibility for the relationship, beginning by changing your attitude. You have probably been sharing a story of victimization at the hands of your boss. "Stop telling that story across the organization. There is a lot of trouble you can get into by being loose-lipped at work about your boss. It affects your brand – you will be seen as a whiner," he warns.
If your old story was "my boss purposefully withholds information from me," change it to, "I need to ask for more context, as he doesn't always share the full picture." If your story has been "My boss doesn't want my ideas," change it to, "He wants my ideas, but I need to bring practical solutions with more evidence."
Start communicating a different, more positive version to others, using your broader understanding of your boss developed through your reflections. By checking your negativity at the door, your attitude will change and others will sense it.
Then change your behaviour aroundyour boss, indicating a different perspective and thawing any chill. Such behavioural change comes in four types of actions: stop, start, emphasize, or de-emphasize. But these changes will only happen consistently if your attitude has been transformed.
Mr. Arneson had a boss who required an appointment for everything booked in the calendar, even items that normally would be handled in a 30-second chat. "It drove me crazy," he said. "But I had to stop thinking he was nuts and then act differently, adapting to his style."
It won't always be easy. But you can't change your boss. So you have to change yourself.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter