Some people don’t like the word “boss.” We like to use terms like leader, team lead and manager. But everybody has a boss. Even f you are a CEO you have a board, shareholders, customers and government agencies. Most of us have a traditional boss. While it can sometimes be difficult to know who your boss is in a world where we try to avoid the term in favor of egalitarian terminology, e.g., we are all “contributors,” “associates,” “team mates” and “coworkers,” at the end of the day, you have a boss. Your boss is the person who gives you raises and bonuses or not, the person who can get you fired, promoted or recommend that you be and the person who manages your work effort, what you do and when. When you think about it, your boss has a lot of power. That is one reason they and the term are so disliked. I have had many bosses during the past 30 years and, like most of us, I have also been a boss. If there is one person you want to listen well to and understand, it is your boss.
Bosses can be hard to listen to and understand. They may say left and we are thinking right. A boss may say do it this way and we think what are they thinking? A boss may say do it this way today and then another way the next day. On occasion, we are certain we did exactly what they asked and then they criticize our work. And when they are angry? How hard is it to listen to an angry boss? For many of us, we have or have had bosses (who at least at times) are downright opaque, obscure and abstract.
I never appreciated abstract art, but I am getting better at it. And the same path that got me to that better understanding of abstract art has helped me with bosses and to be a better boss. I bought the painting above, a Daniel Maltzman, which I like, and I see something different every time I look at it. And doesn’t that sound like some of our bosses or all bosses at least some of the time – a different “element” or facet of their personality presents itself as they attempt to fulfill their own organizational role.
My appreciation of modern art required me to separate the art into two roles. The first role was functional; to fit somewhere structurally that worked in a room. For example, the size has to accentuate the space in the room. The colors should accentuate or complement or contrast with the colors already in the room or outside colors. Modern art plays a functional role in a house, apartment, condominium or museum. The second and very distinctive aspect of the art is the personality of the piece. In essence you need to listen to the painting and feel its movement and elements to appreciate it. I like to imagine what the artist did first and second and even the look on their face. I like to know who they are, where they are from, what they might be thinking. I like to understand the context of their work. And if you do some research and study on the artist you will find the commonalities – the elements that makes works identifiable as theirs.
If a boss was a machine, all function and no personality or human element, what would that be like? Those who watched Star Trek know. Leonard Nimoy, aka Spock, who lived long and prospered until last week, played the boss with only function and no human element. And while I am not a Trekkie, I watched the show all the time in my youth. Captain Kirk (think CEO), played by William Shatner, was full of emotion and personality. Until we work for robots, Shatner is the representative model for bosses, not Spock. Sure Captain Kirk had a job and function, but he also had a strong personality and was full of emotion.
If you want to be better at listening to and understanding your boss, like appreciating an abstract painting, you have to separate the two parts, function and personality, as you listen. You have to filter and divide functional needs and instruction from the personality element. Your boss has a functional role in the organization and your boss is a human being with personality, movement and characteristics that makes him or her a unique human being. To learn to listen well to your boss requires you separate each of these two elements: Functional Role and Human Expression. Your boss has a role in the organization and your boss has a boss. The pressures you feel and the communication you get from your boss reflects what they are functionally accountable for and to whom. Your work, in a well structured organization, is part of the work that your boss is accountable for to his or her boss and the organizational goals. A good boss and a good organization will help you understand how your work helps with the organization’s mission and objectives. If your boss was just a cog in the organizational machine and had no personality or emotion, you would be working for Spock. But you don’t.
Here are some tips for listening to your boss and separating the functional from the emotional.
1. Learn how your boss expresses what is really important to them. Everyone has different communication styles but even when angry, especially when angry, they operate out of habit. What is their habit of conveying what is really important? This can best be discovered when you are given more than one thing to do. Always ask which is the most important and see how they convey that to you. Some bosses, especially in NY and the Northeast, will say it twice or even thrice. Others – I have seen this among more introverted bosses and in the Midwest – will mutter it under their breath. You won’t know what is important if you don’t know what is really important to your boss – so consciously asking them to prioritize your multiple assignments and listening and watching their response will teach you how they speak differently about what is important and what is not. I had a boss from the Midwest who would talk and talk and talk and then at the end sort of mutter something under their breath. I learned over time that the final mutter is what they really thought and the most important thing to them.
2. Don’t ignore the emotional personality, but don’t take it personally either.Objectives and timelines create immediate pressure. Your boss has objectives and timelines and hands some off to you and the rest to others in her or his organization. Something doesn’t get done on time? Something doesn’t get done right? Boom. Emotion is a way to release stress. Understanding the emotional personality of your boss is critical – so don’t ignore it but don’t absorb it. As Mr. Miyagi always said, “when punch comes don’t be there.” Just listen, and as you listen, separate any helpful advice or criticism from personal attack. I once had a boss that was so mad she literally threw a file at me. When I picked it up and said, “I can’t believe you threw a file at me.” She said, “I didn’t. As I recall I set it in your lap and you stood up.” It can be hard to separate yourself out from someone else’s tantrum; but you have to do it. Obviously, extreme cases may need to be reported to HR as well as any matter that involves discrimination of a protected class. As a 30 something white male at the time I chalked it up to something maybe I would write about someday – and now I have.
3. To handle an emotional outburst from your boss requires breaking some of the usual listening rules. Never, ever, try to practice active listening if your boss is yelling or in another emotional state. Never say, “so boss, what you are trying to say is I screwed up.” Don’t repeat the criticism. Your best bet is to separate the emotion from the message and not take it personally. Nod at anything you agree with and don’t nod if you disagree. During an emotional outburst, most of the communication is non-verbal. Your boss is using body language, tone, volume and other tactics to communicate displeasure. Believe it or not, they don’t necessarily know what they are saying.. But even in a tirade, there can be helpful nuggets, so be listening for them.
4. Learn how to practice listening triage and convert the right sounds to background noise. At some point in your life you learned how to stratify sounds. You treat some sounds as background noise and some sounds your ears almost wiggle to hear. This is actually a survival skill. If you are in the woods, some sounds make your heart beat fast and cause your adrenal glands to ramp up and other sounds are relaxing, comforting and safe. In our early ancestors’ days, if you got those two wrong you could be dinner. Practice separating functional and emotional messages. I hung out with Lawrence Tynes, a now retired NFL placekicker, one night after a fundraiser golf tournament in Scotland. He recounted a missed field goal against Green Bay in the playoffs which I had seen on TV. And I remember the NFL coach just screaming at him as he returned to the sidelines. Together he and I watched the clip from his interview with David Letterman and Letterman asked him what the coach was saying when he was screaming and yelling at Tynes. Tynes said, “I never hear what he is saying.” “I know he is yelling at me, I just never hear him.” He goes on to explain he never lets one missed kick get him down. I asked him how he handled the pressure. He said, “It’s just a game, Cash.” If you have a volatile boss, watch David Letterman’s video interview of Lawrence Tynes on not letting it get to you.
5. Don’t argue with constructive criticism. When someone goes on offense, we tend to go on defense. Playing offense/defense with your boss is not in your best interest. Don’t shut down either. Take it in and consider it, even if it makes you angry and you completely disagree. Use body language for feedback rather than getting into an argument. Give yourself time to consider the criticism or advice. There might be something to it. Discuss it with your friend or significant other; they may actually agree with your boss. And if you receive valid criticism, turn it into a to do item. Take a sticky note and put it on your monitor or somewhere you will be reminded of it so you can work on it.
6. If you handle your boss’ outburst well – they owe you one. I remember when I was a young lawyer, a very powerful person screamed at me because I was questioning a transaction. How powerful? – a CEO that had come out of the Reagan administration. I listened. It was hard not to argue or defend myself. He was actually wrong and should have listened to me. Instead he blasted me. I just listened. Months later I bumped into the CEO and he was with Henry Kissinger having dinner. He introduced me to Kissinger. He was polite like nothing happened. Word got back to me he felt bad about “yelling at that young lawyer.” I forgave the heat of the moment and it was good for me later. I got admiration from others who heard about it and was promoted to a new opportunity.
As long as humans work for humans, there will be functional roles and personalities in our interactions. Bosses are human; sometimes too human. But understanding your boss and listening to your boss requires patience, separating the emotional content from the helpful content, not taking it personally and not arguing about it. Use body language to provide feedback in emotional scenarios – you won’t win an argument and may do permanent damage to the relationship even if you do. Bosses can be like abstract art, where you find yourself discovering new facets all too frequently. And based on my experience, some of the most difficult bosses are found in some of the most fascinating functions and you can learn a lot more from them than the “hands off” types. But to manage your boss, you have to know how to listen to your boss and learn their communication style over time.While nothing justifies a boss’ disrespectful behavior to a subordinate or employee, it happens. So you need to be prepared for it when it does and know how to extract any benefit while minimizing damaging to your self esteem.
If you are following along in my listening series, you should have already read, The Only Resolution You Need for 2015, To Listen Well is To Be Like Water, Love Song Lyrics and Listening Skills and Frosty, The Taz and Listening to Introverts. All posts are under my profile on LinkedIn. This essay is the fifth in a planned series of 20 essays on listening.