Having a strong relationship with your boss can actually be pretty straightforward if you know how to go about it. Here are eight key levers that can improve the way you interact.
1. Bring differences in perspective to the surface. Often when you disagree with your boss, it's because you have information or a perspective that she doesn't, or vice versa. When you're in conflict, take that as a sign that one of you knows something that the other doesn't, or that one of you is looking at the situation from a different perspective, and try to bring that difference to the surface. This won't solve every disagreement, but it will solve a lot of them – and if nothing else, it will help you each have a better understanding of where the other is coming from, which can make differences of opinion easier to live with.
2. Respect your manager's communication preferences. If you're an email person and your boss is an in-person communicator, you'll get frustrated if you try to rely on email for asking questions and getting input, and vice versa. Pay attention to how your boss prefers to communicate – email vs. in person vs. phone, as well as whether there are times of day or days of the week when she's especially available or particularly inaccessible – and adapt accordingly. It can be painful to switch from your own preferred method, but it will often get you what you need faster, and make your boss see you as someone easy to communicate with.
3. Do what you say you're going to do, or circle back to her if you can't. Most managers are frustrated by how often they can't count on employees to follow through, particularly on small commitments (which employees may think matter less). If your manager learns that she can't trust you to do what you say you're going to do, expect her to check up on you more, which can feel like annoying micromanaging. Of course, there will be times when you won't be able to keep a commitment or meet a deadline you agreed to – or when new information makes you want to change course. In those cases, simply update your boss; if you proceed without looping her in, you'll signal that she can't assume work is unfolding as last agreed to.
4. Don't complain behind her back. Sure, everyone needs to vent about work sometimes. But if your boss finds out you've been complaining about her or aspects of work without talking to her first, you'll break her trust in you. Pay her the respect of letting her know if something seriously bothers you, and if it's not a serious concern, pay her the respect of not complaining about her to others in your office.
5. Stay calm and don't cause drama. There's no way to avoid moments of frustration at work; they're part of having a job. But if you let yourself become angry, offended or panicky without very serious provocation, you'll become another headache your boss has to deal with, which will in turn impact your relationship for the worse. Staying calm is an undervalued professional trait that can have a real payoff.
6. Know it's not personal. If you've ever worked with someone who takes every workplace decision personally – from work assignments to who the boss took out to lunch – you know how exhausting they are to be around. Having a reasonably thick skin and not taking your manager's or company's decisions personally will make you easier for everyone to work with – especially your boss. Similarly…
7. Be open to feedback. It might sound obvious, but an awful lot of people get defensive when they hear critical feedback from a boss. If your first reaction when hearing critical feedback is to think about how to defend yourself, you're probably missing the value of the input, and making it harder for your boss to give you useful feedback in the future. And even if you ultimately disagree with it, it's helpful to know your boss's assessment of your work. (In fact, it can be immensely helpful to request critical feedback. Try asking, "What could I be doing better?" and see what you hear.)
8. Try giving your boss the benefit of the doubt. In most manager-employee relationships, there will be plenty of opportunities for misreading your boss's intentions – or for giving her the benefit of the doubt. For example, you could feel slighted when your boss gives your co-worker a better assignment than you, or you could conclude that it was just random chance or that your boss had a reason for thinking it suited your co-worker better. You could take it personally when your boss cancels his meeting with you at the last minute, or you could assume that something came up that was legitimately a higher priority and that your boss is juggling everything as best as she can. Of course, if you ever see a pattern that concerns you, speak up! But start by giving your manager the benefit of the doubt, and you might find that you're happier and the relationship is a better one.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.