There’s an adage that “people leave managers, not companies” – and the results of a Gallup poll of one million workers this year reinforce it. The main reason that respondents cited for quitting a job was dissatisfaction with their immediate manager. It’s clear, then, that our relationship with our manager can make or break a job, yet many of us find it a real challenge to influence upwards and form a healthy rapport with those who have authority over us.
In such relationships we have no positional power, so it’s important to apply other types. These include expert power (eg, specialist knowledge), resource power (eg, networks of contacts) and, in particular, personal power, which comes from having a healthy respect for ourselves and others. But these often go unrecognised and are not used effectively.
Personal power is something that we can all develop and it is transportable, not context-dependent. Having a regard for our own values and opinions, as well as acknowledging others’ rights to their values and opinions, even if these differ from ours, is at its core. This enables us to speak up for ourselves without imposing our values on others. Key skills here are the ability to challenge the other person without judging them as wrong and the ability to suggest solutions in a positive way rather than simply highlighting problems.
Investing in developing a rapport with your manager, particularly early on, can reap dividends later and is a task in its own right. Yet, under the work pressure that we all face, we often fail to make time for this. One of the keys to building an effective relationship is for both parties to make clear what they expect of each other. Most of the time, people’s expectations remain implicit and we can often endow others with special psychic powers that enable them to tune into what matters to us and know exactly what we need. Then we are surprised and frustrated when they can’t read our minds.
Starting a conversation about what each of you needs from the other at the outset is a great foundation for a good working partnership. The more you know about your manager, their preferences and how they like to work, the better your communication and the healthier the relationship will be. For example, some people need detailed information from those who report to them, while others will prefer a brief overview.
But a hierarchical relationship can put us in touch with ingrained attitudes rooted in the formative experiences of our youth. Over-compliance (dependent behaviour) or rebelliousness (counter-dependent behaviour) can be triggered when an authority figure behaves in a way that reminds us of a scenario we have faced in the past. When this happens we often don’t see the present situation clearly and we then go through a kind of automatic response pattern that can prove unhelpful.
It’s useful, therefore, to note our own reactions to certain behaviour. If an emotional response seems disproportionate, it’s a clue that something else has been triggered in us. All of us, to some extent, can be affected in such a way. Some of us get caught in traps of needing to please others in order to feel OK; to get things right all the time; or even to focus too much on trying hard, rather than producing what’s needed, and sabotaging ourselves when it looks like success is imminent.
Dos and don’ts
* Don’t be afraid to speak up and challenge your manager, but do so from a standpoint of valuing yourself and the other – an “I’m OK, you’re OK” position.
* Don’t merely find problems; suggest solutions. Be an ally rather than a threat.
* Do clarify and manage expectations. Establish what is important to your manager and also state what you need from them.
* Do invest time in building a rapport. Find out what makes your manager tick.
* Do be aware of what behaviour triggers your responses in hierarchical relationships and the unhelpful patterns that you could get locked into.
Seren Trewavas (email@example.com) is a chartered occupational psychologist and accredited executive coach at consultancy Sheppard Moscow.