Managing your manager

    HOW TO

  • Open productive and honest lines of communication with your manager
  • Understand better how and when managers can help

Good communication is critical to any successful work relationship, and that holds twice as true when colleagues are interacting within a relatively unstructured environment. Simply put, without strong communication with your manager, at least in the initial stages of a work relationship, whatever you are doing is headed to failure. Moreover, poor communication also drags this ill-fated process out, making it all the more damaging to yourself, to colleagues and to the organization as a whole, raising the costs and risks for everyone.

Of all the possible criteria a manager may base his or her recruitment process on, early signs of effective or defective communication are among the most vital. In my view, they are second only to compelling evidence of motivation (to work and, most importantly, to learn). Everything else – your smarts, your skills – becomes relevant if and only if those two boxes have been checked. Indeed, decent work may be done independently, but the best outcomes always entail more collaborative components and phases.

Good communication, paradoxically, is both a matter of common sense and intriguingly rare. It revolves around basic principles, which may be straightforward, but require some effort, some discipline and at times some courage to apply.

First and foremost, the longer a problem is left unaddressed the worse it tends to become, and the more difficult the process of finding a solution. This is particularly true of problematic personal relationships, but applies to virtually everything else too. To ignore a concern, hoping it will solve itself or just go away, almost guarantees that it will become systemic. Naturally, you shouldn’t be pestering your manager whenever you face an obstacle—try hard to find a solution of your own, but not for long. As soon as you can sense that you’re stuck at your level, take it up to the next one.

Good communication is both a matter of common sense and intriguingly rare

Managing conflict is an essential part of good communication. Too often, misunderstandings are left to fester; tensions and frustrations to grow; and animosities to entrench themselves. Typically, a backlog of problems turns into a psychological ordeal. Therefore the factors of conflict (say, disagreements over objectives and strategies or any sense of unfair treatment) must be discussed as they arise. Ideally, the best approach is a structured one: take just enough time to fact-check your views, dampen your emotions, and formulate reasonable requests before making an appointment to talk to your manager while formally putting the topic on the agenda. That helps your manager prepare, and defuse his/her own impulsive reactions.

A related aspect of good communication is to always seek closure. Ideas, conversations, initiatives, projects all need a conclusion. In the work environment, loose ends must absolutely be tied up. For example, if no one follows up on a task you’ve been assigned, or on a great suggestion you’ve made, don’t just let them lurk in limbo. Make a point of raising them to revive them or, alternatively, to kill them consensually.

Gentle reminders are the bane of our time. They’re as annoying as they are indispensable. Never assume that your manager truly remembers your proposals, your problems, or even your deadlines. They should, but they rarely do. To be fair, there is no fail-proof mechanism to effectively oversee very different people working on a range of issues, within varying timeframes, and facing specific sets of problems. In other words, so much depends on you managing your manager’s memory…

Another frequent impediment to good communication is our tendency to assume that we, as human beings, have a capacity to detect and grasp other people’s intentions. In my experience, not only are we naturally inclined to get them wrong, but we also tend to assume the worst. Digital communication adds to this problem: an aggressive tone can so easily be read into a neutral message, along with other intents and purposes supposedly written in between the lines. Oral conversations, formal meetings and more casual encounters may take up a lot of our time, but in the long run they save us a huge amount that otherwise would be wasted on misunderstandings and letting relationships slip.

 Helping others to get things done is exactly what a manager in meant for in the first place

Also bear in mind that a personal problem ceases to be personal when it clearly prevents you from delivering on your professional duties and goals. Health issues? Raise them. A family catastrophe? Give your manager a chance to surprise you with his or her understanding, moral support and flexibility. Petty logistical issues getting in the way? Well, it’s always good to talk: you may not have thought of all the solutions, and at least it explains the slow work pace that managers almost always perceive.

As a rule, any and every unresolved obstacle to a productive routine is reason enough for a conversation. Confused by ambiguous expectations? Make an appointment to clarify them. Merely overwhelmed and falling behind? Come clean and ask for help. Uncomfortable with certain requests? Perhaps adjustments can be made, or better explanations given. Don’t trust your manager? Maybe he/she is to blame. But in any event, if you’ve reached that stage, you should already be looking for another job.

It will greatly benefit you to overcome your inhibitions and reach out to your manager for help or advice whenever you may need it. Your manager is there to help you, if only because helping others to get things done is exactly what managers are meant for in the first place. That’s their responsibility. Yours is to enable them to be there for you.

3 November 2016

Illustration credit: To assist the hearing on Flickr / public domain

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