(This article originally appeared in Computerworld USA and Computerworld Australia.)
Wouldn’t it be nice if every boss came with a standard API? It would be so easy to look at the interface specifications and know exactly what he expected, in what format he expected it, when you should deliver it, what predictable events would result from your input and how you should handle error conditions. All the politics would go away. Those pesky emotions would become a nonissue. Success would become deterministic.
Sadly, it will never be so simple. Every boss-subordinate connection is a custom job. This is both the promise and the pain of workplace relationships; they are cobbled together not of hardware or software, but of wetware (the gray, squishy stuff between our ears).
The complaints about this are endless from the subordinate side. “I don’t know what he wants, and he won’t tell me.” “She doesn’t really understand what I do, so she can’t tell me what she expects.” “He tells me one thing, and then when I give it to him, he changes his mind.” “She says that I have an attitude problem, but I don’t really know what that means.”
As it turns out, the inability to forge easily understandable, straightforward, repeatable relationships is just as frustrating for bosses as it is for subordinates. Supervisors would love to be able to clearly articulate exactly what they expect so that all their people would understand. Sadly, many managers erroneously believe that they have clearly defined and communicated their expectations, and they just can’t figure out why no one else seems to get their vision.
I’ve developed a rather simple philosophy of boss-subordinate relationships. Although not a detailed specification, it has served me well both as a manager and as a subordinate. It comes in two parts.
Part 1. A subordinate owes the boss and the organization three simple things:
That’s it. If I deliver on all three of those things, I can look myself in the mirror and feel that I’ve fulfilled my part of the employment bargain. Let’s take a quick look at each one, because they are deceptively simple.
Candor. We owe the boss honest opinions about important things on the job. As knowledge workers, we are not hired for our muscle power; we are hired for our brain power, so we owe it to the boss to share the fruits of our thought. That doesn’t mean that we blather on about every fleeting neural discharge, but if something is important, we need to share our perspective.
Sometimes, this can be an unpleasant obligation. Disagreeing with the boss is not always fun. Some managers are not open to other people’s opinions. Some are too insecure to accept them. Some believe that power confers wisdom and that they don’t need to listen to anyone else. But the boss’s receptiveness doesn’t affect the obligation. If a project is running aground, someone has to speak up before it’s too late.
Loyalty. I’m not talking about the blind fealty of a medieval vassal to his master, but rather a reasonable modicum of this uncommon virtue.
Ultimately, part of every manager’s job is to make decisions. This includes making hard choices that may upset people. If a manager never ticks anyone off, he is probably shirking his responsibilities. If we have shared our opinions with our manager and he makes a decision we don’t agree with, we are obliged to get over it and implement his choice. We should not spend endless hours trying to change things post hoc or, worse, trying to secretly undermine the decision.
Of course, there are exceptions to the loyalty rule. If what the boss has asked us to do is unethical, illegal, dangerous or patently self-serving, loyalty ends there.
Delivery. And finally, when we promise to do something, we do it.
Part 2. Bosses owe their subordinates three simple things too:
Although not a detailed API, this simple understanding can go a long way toward smoothing relationships and directing successful careers. What we owe one another in the workplace may be vast, but in some ways it is quite simple.
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