Before we answer this question, let’s first ask: What is a boss? In the past, bosses were people who were in charge. They knew what had to be done and knew how to do it, and so they controlled the workforce using a combination of reward and punishment to achieve the desired outcome. In the knowledge-based era, outputs are often intangible, and technology is moving so fast that even where there are tangible outcomes, bosses can no longer keep up with how to do a task. Team members often know best how to do their jobs and do not need bosses for their task-based expertise or experience.
So why do we still have bosses? Google is an example of a company that believes in flat structures and empowered employees. In 2002 Larry Page abandoned management structures but soon found he was inundated with so many diverse requests that he had to re-create some management structure. In essence, he needed a few go-to people who owned areas of the business. Without that structure, even the leaking toilet becomes the problem of the owner or founder of the company. Bosses exist to own an area of the business and handle all those issues on behalf of their bosses. They are the conduit of information and single point of responsibility for specific areas of the business. In an empowered environment where skilled staff deliver outcomes directly to customers, is this not a contradiction? The answer is no! Despite knowledge-based workers producing outcomes themselves and often delivering them directly to the end customer—either internal or external—the so-called boss is still directly responsible for the outcome when reporting upwards to their bosses.
What this means for me is that even though I do not necessarily need my boss to provide any missing skills to do my job, I need my boss to ensure my contributions are used effectively to produce business outcomes. In most businesses, this is not always limited to the person to whom I report in the organizational structure.
My real boss is the person held responsible by their bosses to meet the needs of the ultimate customer – which is a balanced mix of the investors, external customers, and staff. In many cases, I therefore have multiple virtual bosses. To be effective I need to manage their needs and treat them as customers.
Managing my relationship with my boss is not about controlling them, changing them, or manipulating them to get what I need. It’s about understanding that they hired me to deliver outputs to their bosses and learning how to meet those needs and deliver those business outcomes. It’s about me learning how to adapt my style to match the style of my boss. It’s about me learning how to get the right business outcomes, even when my boss has weaknesses or poor communication skills. It’s about me learning how to be a better follower. It’s about learning how to communicate upwards effectively and escalate issues in a way that gets results. Managing my relationship with my boss is about managing myself!
Further develop your skills in EPD’s Managing Up and Managing Across: Leadership Beyond Your Team course, or contact Tom Smith.