Communicating Up: How to Relate with the Person in Charge

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Many workers feel challenged when it’s time to talk with the boss.  Leaders are usually more experienced, have more history at your workplace and have the most influence over your workday.  Bosses have the most responsibility and the least amount of time. It may be a challenge just to get their attention. It helps to remember that they want, sometimes need, you to succeed.  When you do, so will they, so keep these points in mind to build this professional relationship (it’s not a personal relationship, where we may expect to be treated as equals).

Know your boss:  their goals, decision-making style, and preferred way to support you.  If you don’t know, there is room for improvement in how you work together.  Get to know their priorities and how they measure success. Any successful business has a vision (where it’s going), a mission statement (how it will get there) and values (how to act along the way).  This is a good place to start. Check the company website.

Listen to them.  Bosses have authority and influence, but they are human, with gaps in their knowledge.  Listen closely and you may get the opportunity to prove that you are a trustworthy source of their missing knowledge, an “influencer.”  Listen for the reason they are making cuts or advancing an idea in order to figure out how you may be a positive influence in supporting them.

Check in:  talk with your manager regularly to keep up to date with their most important goals and challenges.  It helps the relationship to check in when you don’t need anything.  If the boss knows that every time they see you, you will present a problem or ask for something, they may avoid you.  Ask early in the relationship how they prefer to be addressed (First name? Last name?). Ask for regular feedback, which tells them you care about your work as well as getting better at it.

Observe and experiment. Get to know the boss’ communication style.  Before a meeting, experiment by sending an agenda or note by email a day or two ahead of time.  Print it out for the meeting. The agenda or note tells them you take their time seriously. Observe what happens: do they study the document ahead of time or read it in front of you?  If they take the time to read your stuff before the meeting, keep doing it. If not, ask about their preferred way to communicate (Phone? Email? In person?) Find out how often they want to hear from you.  Watch how more experienced colleagues communicate with them for clues.

Time is precious, the boss’ most valuable resource, so make the most of it. Decide how much you want and how you plan to use it before you ask for it.  Don’t waste their time with details. Give the “big picture” and only provide details if they ask (most won’t).  For example, if you want to present an issue to a boss at a construction site or in the store where you work - and there are work colleagues or customers around - simply say, “I have an issue/question/concern.  When is a good time for you?” Take what they give you. Most will say something like, “give me a few minutes with this customer and meet me in my office.”

Get the boss to say “yes.”  If you want the boss to change something your chances will increase if you propose a role for yourself in making the change.  If you want a new coffee machine in the lunchroom, your chances of getting it will increase by up to 70% if you tell the boss that you will take responsibility for cleaning it and disposing of the used grounds.  It’s not enough to put out an idea. If you work out issues in advance, that’s time the boss won’t have to invest. They’re usually happy to say “yes” if you show that you’re willing to take some responsibility.