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The Careerist – July 19, 2019

Learn to Communicate Better With Your Boss

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Q: I have this nagging feeling that my boss hates me. Could I be right?   

A: Hate is a strong emotion, and unless you’ve been slashing tires or sleeping with the boss’s spouse, it’s unlikely that it’s “hate.”

But let’s unpack this concern. Be honest: Have you been doing a good job and acting and speaking appropriately? Second, is this a new concern or has it persisted the whole time you’ve worked together? Cynthia Yamasaki, a business and life coach based in Honolulu, says when you feel someone doesn’t like you, it often boils down to communication styles.

“Pause and check in with emotions,” she says. “Am I reading into something more than I should? Where is this feeling coming from? What expectations do I have for how to be treated?” Then, she says, have a face-to-face conversation, which will preclude any further miscommunication that can arise over text or email.

During your meeting, you don’t need to bust right out with, “Do you hate me?” Yamasaki suggests a script, such as: “I’d like to get a better understanding between us.” And give specific examples, she says. You might say, “During such-and-such situation, you reacted this way. Can you clarify what you meant?” Yamasaki says that if you have good intentions, “people will let their guard down and talk with you.”

You might feel uneasy and project emotions onto your new job if you’ve been burned before by a negative experience at work. With that in mind, Yamasaki suggests that people try to “go into each new relationship with a fresh start and an open-mindedness.”

If you notice a pattern with your boss’s methods, it’s probably just a communication style. But if the boss is doing things that violate your company’s code of conduct, that’s another issue. If so, raise your concerns with higher-ups or human resources. When you do that, “Have the facts and use the right channel,” says Yamasaki. “This isn’t a time to gossip at the water cooler.”

  

Q: As a project manager, I plan, organize and oversee large projects with a team of nine.  How can I get my team to hit deadlines more often? My boss thinks, rightly, that the buck stops with me when we miss a deadline but getting our group on time feels like herding angry cats.

A: Stop cajoling the cats and start running with the bulls. A bull’s-eye, that is. Because instead of seeing deadlines as a finish line, we should rethink them as a bull’s-eye target, according to recent research from the University of Michigan. A doctoral student there named Tom Logan has experimented with ways to better target deadlines. His solution: Focus on the extremes, asking a project’s stakeholders for optimistic and pessimistic completion dates.

But don’t stop there; have your team flesh out all the variables that could change the target dates. Now you have a really good understanding of the issues surrounding the optimistic and pessimistic dates, and as long as the project is aiming to finish between the two dates, it’s considered on time. A less certain deadline requires a bigger target, giving managers like you the flexibility to move resources around.

The bull’s-eye can be adjusted as the project moves forward – shrinking as the project starts to gel, or growing larger if needed. To test his theory, Logan simulated 1,000 projects and found the method improved the success rate by up to 40 percent. That means projects can get finished in a timelier manner, will turn out better tailored to fit the client, and may even improve the bottom line. Find a summary and a link to the whole study at tinyurl.com/hackthedeadline.

 

Q: I’m a college professor with high standards. But when I hold students accountable – for basics like not bringing their materials for class or leaving in earbuds while I’m lecturing – I get feedback on student evaluations calling me “mean.” How am I supposed to course correct without getting dinged?

A: Are you fully tenured? Then who cares? Seriously, student feedback is to be taken with a big old grain of salt. But if you do care, let’s look at the concept of accountability, and for this, I turned to an expert, Sam Silverstein. He is a speaker and the author of eight books on this topic, including “No More Excuses,” “Non-Negotiable” and “Making Accountable Decisions.” Silverstein shocked me because the first thing he told me was, “It’s not about holding people accountable.” Wait, what? “A great leader helps people be accountable, not holds them accountable. The spotlight is off the student, and on the leader.” He calls accountability “the highest form of leadership. The greatest organizations I know, have great leaders who inspire people to want to be accountable.”

“Culture by default is anything goes,” he says, whereas “culture by design is modeled by the leaders. Day One at the start of the semester, a professor needs to announce: ‘Here are the values we are going to operate in our class. I’m going to show up. I’m going to prepare. I’m going to bring all the information you need to learn. I need you to show up. I need you to be prepared. I need you to do everything in your power to learn.’ ”

If a student shows up at the next class, sans appropriate materials, he says, “Kick them out of the class that day. ‘You can’t do this work if you don’t have this tool, so there is no way for you to participate.’ How many times do you think that happens before people bring their tools? It’s not punishment. It all applies to the professor as well.” The professor, he says, is expected to bring the right tools, be prepared and show up. You show that you want your students to have a strong educational experience, that you care about them and they won’t want to let you down. Now you’re leading.

“Values are meaningless until they are non-
negotiable,” Silverstein says. “If it’s not non-negotiable, you don’t value it.”

This advice would work for a variety of settings: a school, business, nonprofit or civic organization. The key message, he says, is: “Here are our values. I’m not going to deviate, and you’re not going to deviate.”

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