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How to Improve Employee-Boss Relationships

Everyone talks about employee engagement and emotional intelligence, but if you want a high-performance organization, you've got to walk the talk.
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If you've ever been involved in a relationship where one spouse works while the other stays home and takes care of the house and the kids, you've probably had a discussion that went something like this:

The Worker: "I work like a dog six days a week. Plus I travel. Sometimes I'm on 24×7. It's stressful as hell."

The Homemaker: "At least you get some positive feedback. A paycheck. Appreciation. I don't get any of that. It's demoralizing and depressing."

You've got to admit, that's some pretty heavy stuff. Having been through that situation myself, I can definitely say it was a real eye opener, and in more ways than one.

First, it made me aware of how much it matters to show a little appreciation. But the big surprise was the impact that just hearing those words had on me. I wasn't aware of how thankless a job my wife had. How she really felt about it.

It really got to me. It broke through, emotionally. As a result, it stuck with me and that changed my behavior.

The situation is strangely analogous to one of the most important aspects of working life: the employee-boss relationship. If you substitute "the boss" for "the worker" and "the employee" for "the homemaker," the similarities are striking, with one notable exception.

In the workplace, that kind of communication, especially the emotional component, rarely occurs. So there's a disconnect, a gap, if you will. Neither side really gets what the other is feeling.

It's unfortunate but nevertheless understandable. After all, work is primarily about delivering great products to customers. It's not about employee-boss relationships. Some might think it should be, but in the real world, it's simply not.

In the real world, work is about meeting our goals and getting the job done. We all have more work to do than we have time to do it. So we prioritize. We do what we have to do, what we're trained to do, to meet our objectives. And that doesn't usually include improving our relationships.

Delving into our work relationships is neither a priority nor something most of us are comfortable with. The sort of conversation we saw above rarely takes place and, even if it does, the emotional component required for behavioral change is usually missing. So the issue doesn't get resolved. It's a real dilemma.

To make matters even more complicated, every boss is also an employee. Bosses have bosses. And their relationships with their bosses have the same issue. So there's a top down ripple effect in organizations where employee motivation and effectiveness are not a high priority. Unfortunately, that probably applies to most companies.

Now, I know what you're going to say. How about all the employee engagement and emotional intelligence stuff everyone keeps talking about? Isn't that supposed to fix this sort of problem?

Well, yes and no. Sure, it's supposed to. But there are a whole host of reasons why it doesn't.

Relationships are never easy. They require openness and understanding. They require a willingness to compromise and change. It's very tricky stuff. Lots of people, bosses and employees alike, just aren't cut out for that sort of thing.

Some people just have issues. In fact, lots of people have issues. And those issues follow them wherever they go, even to work. And when those people are stressed and under the gun, those issues rear their ugly heads. That's just the way it is.

You can't just give lip service to employee effectiveness. Lots of companies talk a good game but, when it comes right down to it, they don't put their money where their mouths are. They don't give their managers the training, the budget, and the time to do it right.

A company's leadership, its managers, and its employees, all play a role in organizational performance. They're all interconnected for the simple reason that every one of them has at least one employee-boss relationship. And the key to improving that relationship comes down to three things:

1. Company culture. Organizational effectiveness is a function of company culture. It's top down driven. If executive management teams makes employee effectiveness a priority by putting the right metrics in place and making them part of their and their manager's compensation, then, and only then, will their managers get the message and "walk the talk."

2. Management empathy. Managers need to understand the impact their behavior has on employee and team performance. When managers show confidence in their people, their people feel empowered. When they treat their employees with respect and appreciation, their employees will jump through hoops of fire for them. Period.

3. Employee empathy. That's right, employees are part of this equation. They need to understand that their bosses are employees too. That they may have the same issues with their own managers. That they don't usually have control over their priorities, their budgets, their training, and their time. And that there are two sides to every relationship.

Last updated: Apr 24, 2013

STEVE TOBAK | Columnist

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, an executive coach, and a former senior executive of the technology industry. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based strategy consulting firm. Contact Tobak; follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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