Is it wrong to have high expectations of one's boss in terms of knowledge, wisdom, and integrity? —Chris Tay, Beijing
Your question brings back a funny memory. Back when we were writing our book, Winning, a few years ago, we hit a real roadblock as we discussed the section that was to cover "managing" a lousy boss. One of us thought a few paragraphs would do. Bad bosses are few and far between, went the case, because their organizations tend to toss them out in due time. The other one of us insisted that bad bosses—the kind who manipulate, confuse, and even torment—were much more prevalent and deserved more ink. Unable to come to agreement, we agreed to put the question to a group of 20 or so friends we were seeing that night at a party.
Guess which point of view prevailed?
Yes, virtually every one of our friends had a story about a close encounter with a manager (or two or three) who had disappointed them in some way. One friend described a boss who never said what she was really thinking. Another recalled a boss who made an art form out of belittling employees in meetings.
But we don't want to excoriate bosses. From experience, we both know that a great boss can change your life, inspiring you to new heights both professionally and personally, and energizing you and your team to together overcome challenges bigger than any one of you could tackle alone.
MORE REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Such experiences are wonderful, and luckily, not that rare. But, to your question, should you expect them? We'd suggest it's probably more reasonable to hope for them, and more realistic to expect the following instead:
First, it's reasonable to expect two candid performance appraisals a year that make it absolutely clear how you're doing relative to your peers and ambitions. Your boss may galvanize your team to deliver stellar results. But no boss is doing his job properly if he's not letting each of his people know where they stand in constructive detail. So even if you'd rather live without frank, biannual evaluations—and the idea does makes some people uncomfortable—you are well within your rights to ask for them.
Second, it's reasonable to expect a boss who doesn't play favorites. Little else has the power to enervate an organization like a boss who has an "in group" and an "out group," like some kind of middle-school "mean girl." Such bosses invariably spawn politicking among colleagues who need to trust each other in order to share information, generate ideas, or simply get anything done. So if your boss is poisoning the workplace with favoritism, you shouldn't chalk it up to business as usual. It's not.
Third, it's reasonable to expect a boss who doesn't abandon you in your hour of need. We have a friend, "Carol," whose boss once asked her to present a proposal at a meeting with the organization's executive team. Carol dutifully complied, but when the executives shook their heads, Carol's boss abandoned her, even throwing up her hands as if she found her own idea annoying. Such I-don't-know-you behavior is the hallmark of a manager who feels vulnerable in his or her own position—or is just a jerk.
Fourth, it's reasonable to expect a boss who delivers outsize rewards for outsize performance. We realize that it may sound crazy to be talking about boosting compensation during recessionary times. But any good boss understands how important—and how motivating—it is to differentiate. And very good bosses refuse to resort to the old line hauled out in every downturn: "You were terrific, but this is all I could get for you from upstairs."
Finally and most important, it's reasonable to expect a boss who demonstrates integrity. It's awful to go to work each day wondering if your boss is shading the truth, adding spin to his real beliefs, or violating company values. So hold tight to this expectation. And if you feel it ebbing, you may need to ask yourself if it's time to move on.
Now, that said, we understand that we're in an economic period when beggars—read, most employees—can't exactly be choosers about their bosses. We also know how much a boss can affect your quality of life. Bottom line, then: Go ahead and hope for the best, but be prepared to settle for a realistic set of expectations.
RELATED LINKS AT BUSINESSWEEK: