We human beings like to operate in tribes. We have done since the beginning of time: a bunch of people have a better shot at survival than one or two. It’s easier to kill big things to eat, grow crops, build shelter, raise children and defend yourself from enemies if you have a group.
The main downside of operating in groups, though, is that whenever there’s more than one person involved in something, they will be continually trying to figure out how things are going to happen. How will decisions get made? Who gets the final say? Who treats who in what ways and what impact does that have? Who does which work? Who has the right to change that? What happens if someone disagrees with the tribe? How do we keep things from falling apart?
In other words, any collection of human beings is a complex web of power and influence. It was true 10,000 years ago, and it’s true today. Today, though, we call our tribes “organizations” or “companies” and we call that web “politics.”
Succeeding at work is at least partly a matter of learning how to navigate that web.
The single most important person in terms of successful navigation is quite often your boss. Cultivating him or her as an ally is key to your survival in this modern tribe. So it’s in your best interest to make sure your boss thinks you’re awesome, and wants to support your success. Here, then, are 7 ways to help make sure that happens:
1) Do what you say. This is important on every level. If you can be relied upon consistently to do what you say you’re going to do – all the way from showing up on time, to sending the email you promised to send, to completing the big project by the agreed-upon deadline, to achieving the EBITDA targets for your business – your boss will learn to see you as a go-to person, and more responsibility and autonomy will come your way. Think about it this way. If you had two chairs, and one of them tended to wobble or even break on occasion, and the other one was solid as a rock and completely reliable, which one would you sit in? Be that solid chair reative to your boss.
2) Take responsibility vs. make excuses. Sometimes, of course, it’s simply not possible to do what you say. In that case, take full responsibility….even if the mistake was out of your control. Here’s how that sounds. Late for a meeting because you had to take your kid to the doctor? Instead of coming into the meeting and saying, “I was at the doctor with my kid, and theres’s no way I could get here on time,” say, “I’m so sorry I’m late. Please keep going – I’ll catch up and get the notes for what I missed afterwards.” If your boss asks you after the meeting why you were late, you can tell him or her the reason – and let him or her know you’ve made arrangements to keep it from happening again.
3) Make requests vs. complaints. This is an important habit to build just in general, but it’s especially important relative to your boss. Here’s the distinction: a complaint says, “This is bad/You’re bad.” A request says, “This is what I’d like to have happen instead.” Complaints feel accusatory and whiny: childish. Requests feel respectful, reasonable, and solution-focused. So instead of saying to your boss, “It’s impossible to get anything done with marketing, they’re so difficult to work with!” (a complaint) say, “I’d really appreciate some help in figuring out how to work better with marketing” (a request).
4) Come with solutions. If requests are good, solutions are even better. I was talking with someone recently, the head of HR for a small but growing company, and she moved herself from complaint to request to solution before going to her boss. At first, she was going to complain to him: “Nobody respects my role, and they won’t do what I ask them to,” but then realized that sounded (and was) lame. So then she thought about making a request to him, “I’d like it if you could tell the GMs they need to respond to my emails and make time to meet with me.” A request – better, but still not great. Finally, she wrote up a simple strategic plan for her role and took it to her boss, saying. “Here’s how I see my role. I want to make sure you and I agree on this, then I’d like to sit down with each of the GMs, talk through it, and come to agreement with them.” A solution! Her boss loved it.
5) Manage your own growth. I’ve noticed, over the years, that there are some employees who “wait to be grown,” and other employees who understand that they are the master of their own career fate, and that they need to figure out where they want to go and how to get there. Most bosses love this second kind of employee, and are happy to support them. An example: rather than expecting your boss to hand you new opportunities, ask for what you want. Decide what you’re interested in, and ask for specific chances to grow in that area. For example, if you want to become a manager of people, ask your boss if you can manage an intern, or team lead a project of your peers.
6) Be a good corporate citizen. Most bosses notice how the people on their team get along. And if one person seems to make things easier for everyone; figures out how to work with others to get things done; supports his or her team mates’ success; doesn’t create drama or gossip…your boss (assuming he or she is a reasonably smart, reasonably well-adjusted person) will appreciate it. If that person is you, it demonstrates to your boss that you’re a positive influence, a good person to have around, and probably capable of doing more. It’s also a big relief to your boss not to have to spend time and energy dealing with your interpersonal difficulties.
7) Make your boss’ life easier. Which brings us to the final thing you can do. Most bosses get tired of feeling as though their employees are only focused on their own benefit, their own careers, and how the boss can help them. If you, as an employee, spend some time thinking about what you can do to support your boss’ success, and then offer to do it, you will be automatically be a welcome change from the norm. My assistant Dan is a great example of this, in ways both large and small. He regularly comes to me with small suggestions that save me time, and he also thinks about bigger issues – work processes that will allow me to delegate more or that let all of us accomplish things more easily. His support of me makes me want to support him.
And when you’re the boss, you’ll want exactly the same kind of employee.
Check out Erika Andersen’s latest book, Leading So People Will Follow, and discover how to be a followable leader. Booklist called it “a book to read more than once and to consult many times.”
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