Numerous readers asked me to do a follow-up piece to my article, “What Makes A Manager Most,” in which I outlined the key foundational characteristics of an exceptional manager: fairness, listening, clarity, and feedback.

The first article was primarily written from the viewpoint of a manager, while this article is more from the viewpoint of a direct report who is attempting to get their manager to consistently perform the different characteristics.

The premise underpinning my recommendations/questions is that direct reports can only ultimately control their own actions, and not necessarily their manager's behavior directly (some say you can shape behavior via behavioral psychology principles, which is true to an extent).

As I stated in my previous article about these behavioral characteristics, there are no silver bullets when it comes to dealing with dysfunctional manager-direct report relationships. But like most things, there are a number of questions you can use in attempting to create insight and action plans that can help to repair the working relationship.

I am also quite cognizant, however, that many direct reports feel -- and often are -- more expendable than their managers, and thus the issue of whether to pursue a potentially career limiting discussion/action must be thought about with care, especially understanding the pragmatics and options available in a given organization, field, and job market.

Fairness

It is quite difficult to have someone act fair if there are no repercussions or consequences to acting unfair or partisan. Many people discount our legal system because of the ostensible lack of justice, fairness, and punishments to match the crime.

With that said, without an organizational system that promotes managerial fairness and transparency, and that punishes unjust and capricious actions, getting your manager to act fairly is an uphill climb. Also, fairness can be in the eye of the beholder, so it is important to make sure you have definitional alignment around this abstract term.

The following questions may help you to better understand this rather nebulous area.

  1. Given your knowledge of your manager, and his or her personality, do you think that he or she is aware of behaving in a way that may appear to be unfair?
  2. Is your manager unfair to all or some of his or her direct reports, or is it exclusive to you?
  3. Understanding your manager's goals, is there a way to creatively develop and execute a shared path that meets both of your needs for fairness and results?

Listening

One of the most respected authors in the professional services field is David Maister, a former Harvard Business School professor. In his book Trusted Advisor, he wrote the following: “Why is ‘being listened to' so important? The answer is not only about the need for a rational understanding of the issues. Our desire to be heard also flows from our need for respect, empathy and involvement. The trusted advisor recognizes this, and always ensures that the self-esteem of the client is protected.”

In many ways, your manager is your client or customer, and it is important for you to be the best listener you can be in discussing business and personal issues with him or her.

There are a few questions you can ask to better understand potential action steps around this area.

  1. How can you be a better listener to your manager and create opportunities to ask open-ended questions and then just listen attentively?
  2. What are the situations/topics where your manager seems to listen well and how can you apply that understanding for future interactions?
  3. How can you create such a compelling message that your manager will have to listen to it? (“What's in it for him or her?”)

Clarity

If you're not getting the clarity you need to perform at your best, you need to figure out a way to help your manager achieve their goals (and understand them) at the same time that you achieve yours.

Your manager's goals should be aligned with the goals of the organization (or division, unit, etc.), and thus your goals should be aligned with, and support, your manager's. If there is not a clear line-of-sight between the top-level goals of the organization, and the levels below, then this scenario needs to be clarified and reconciled as success is more probable when everyone is clear on their overall purpose, direction, and contribution.

There are a few tests a direct report should perform in thinking about this area.

  1. How precisely are each of your goals (e.g., Management By Objectives: MBOs) measured and how will you know whether you have achieved them or not?
  2. How do your goals align with your manager's goals?
  3. How are your goals broken down into specific action steps (e.g., percent of time on certain activities)?

Lastly, keep in mind the Dale Carnegie quote: “The only way on earth to influence … [someone] is to talk about what he [she] wants and show him [her] how to get it.”

Feedback

Asking for more feedback can be a delicate situation. You do not want to appear as though you can't think on your own and/or take some initiative, but you also don't want to be so far along on a specific task that doing the entire thing over is a real possibility.

Testing or prototyping your progress is quite natural and helps to mitigate rework, while promoting real-time adaptation. Most tasks/directives go through various stages of revision and it is wise to get specific feedback on milestones and development as you progress towards their completion. This feedback can be as “wide and deep” as needed by the participants and task/activity.

There are a few tests a direct report should perform in thinking about this area.

  1. How does getting feedback help you in achieving your goals, and subsequently, the goals of your manager?
  2. How can you be clearer around your expectations for feedback and coaching?
  3. Describe (in your own mind) how constructive and timely feedback is a good investment for the organization.

Conclusion

Many of these questions do not attempt to change your manager, which is a challenging, if not impossible, task, but they do help you to formulate, define, and clarify in your own mind how you can build a business case for getting what you need to perform at your best.

It seems quite clear that if you don't know the end (desired) state and get feedback along the way, there is higher likelihood that you will not be as effective or productive as you can be with a clearer direction and “better lighting.”

Ultimately, the more tools you have at your disposal and the more willing you are to look reality clear in the eye, the better chance you will have, and the more control you will feel, in professionally working out any difficulties between you and your manager.

When it comes to relating and dealing with people, there are no algorithms, only shades of gray and continuous upkeep.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael L. Perla is a principal consultant at a sales and marketing consulting firm. He can be reached at michaelperla@bellsouth.net.