Leading the relationship with your manager

By understanding your manager's perspective and goals, you can become a true partner in ensuring your team's success.
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Have you ever considered your relationship with your manager? It's often the catalyst that defines both your work experience and job satisfaction, a relationship you want to take by the reins and lead, instead of sitting back and allowing its negative aspects to fester. The ultimate employee/manager relationship you should strive for is more of a partnership, one in which you and your manager work together to accomplish your mutual goals. In this article, I'll discuss strategies for doing this.

To micromanage, or fire and forget?

We've all heard of (or experienced) micromanagement, a relationship in which a manager tells employees exactly what's expected and verifies that the results meet requirements. Employees in this situation often feel like minions or peons who really have no control over their environment and don't feel trusted to do their jobs properly. In certain circumstances and with certain people, this mindset is required. It demands little responsibility from the employee, and the manager knows exactly what's being delivered. For an entry-level job or for a new hire, this may be considered good practice, as it involves very clearly spelling out expectations while both employee and manager have an opportunity to learn how the other works. However, if this situation continues for too long, there's most likely a problem.

At the other end of the management spectrum, we have what is known as "fire and forget." The manager tells an employee about something that needs to be done, provides a deadline, and is certain the work will be completed satisfactorily and by that deadline. This works well with employees who are highly capable, know what to do, and understand who to approach if they encounter obstacles. The style can work in cases where the employee is "standalone" (not part of a team) and will accomplish the entire task, and in cases where the employee is a team lead and will coordinate other teammates to get the job done. This doesn't mean that the employee and manager won't communicate throughout the process; however, their communication is related more to mutual collaboration and teamwork, rather than status reports and verifying that the job is being done "to spec." The "fire and forget" style assumes a high degree of trust between manager and employee, and often communicates the employee's value. It often leads to employees who are capable of greater influence and impact across the team and organization.

So if you're someone working in an open organization—where people are encouraged to step into leadership roles frequently and assume more autonomy over their work—how can you move from a work experience where you feel like a cog in a wheel to one in which you feel like you own your career?

A new pair of shoes

So if you're someone working in an open organization—where people are encouraged to step into leadership roles frequently and assume more autonomy over their work—how can you move from a work experience where you feel like a cog in a wheel to one in which you feel like you own your career?

The first thing to do is to put yourself in your manager's shoes and understand not only their perspective but also their incentive.

Employees are generally judged by the work they do. It is (or should be) relatively easy to know whether you're meeting expectations; you can just examine the product of your labor. Managers, on the other hand, are judged by the work other people do. A manager who is uncomfortable being judged by the product of your work will not enable you to operate in an independent fashion.

So as you prove yourself capable, you should gradually see less micro-management. If this doesn't happen, however, address it directly: Open a conversation with your manager.

I recommend structuring that conversation like this:

  • Learn the business and its various job functions, and see where there's room for more independence and ability to have an impact. Then explain that you feel your time in the position is going well, that you like the work, that you see a future for yourself doing it, and that you would like added responsibilities.
  • Suggest what those additional responsibilities are—whether it's gathering requirements for upcoming tasks, developing an implementation plan, being responsible for delivery, or something at any other stage in a process. As you build the relationship with your manager, you should look for opportunities to expand your role.

Following up

As you work, continue learning about the functions your manager's group performs. Then consider how you can continue to help that work move in a direction the manager will find beneficial. As your manager sees you can be trusted to do what's expected and are working in the entire group's interest, you'll earn more and more responsibility. When your goals align more closely with your manager's goals—and you've become a trusted team member—you'll have achieved a partnership.

Remember: a manager is responsible for the functioning of the team as a whole, while you can be responsible for the specific implementation of that functionality. A manager can have multiple employee/partners on the team, each with their own areas of responsibility. Reaching this level can lead to increased job satisfaction (not to mention the sense that your team is working as a well-oiled machine).

Will this always work? No. Not every manager is comfortable acting as a partner as I've described here. If you feel that your manager is not enabling you to own the relationship and to grow in your position, then it may be worthwhile to start looking for a new position.

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DevOps/CI Architect with over 20 years of experience across the technology stack, including design and development of software and databases as well as DevOps, CI and system & network administration. Business Leader with experience in business processes development, team management, consensus building, mentoring and training.

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