The stock market’s been climbing. Housing prices are on the rebound. But the job market? Like a bum on a bender, it still hasn’t hit bottom. Even as the Dow continued its impressive run-up in recent months, Americans were still losing jobs at the rate of 2,500 an hour. Looking for work?
At last count, there were 14.5 million workers competing for just 2.6 million openings, and the average job hunt lasted six months. All of which means there’s one piece of advice that holds true for just about every employee: Keep your job.
Even the most ambitious Americans are playing defense when it comes to career planning – hanging on to their jobs as tight as they can. For most workers, that includes paying extra attention to their relationship with their direct supervisor, who, not surprisingly, is under quite a bit of pressure lately. According to a recent survey of U.S. managers by global HR consulting firm BPI, 82 percent feel stressed on the job, and 75 percent say the stress has hurt their relationship with their teams. “If a boss was indecisive, controlling or temperamental in good times, he’s probably twice as bad now,” says Manhattan psychotherapist Katherine Crowley, who specializes in workplace relationships.
The fact that many managers these days lack the skills to lead a team only adds to the challenge. Twenty years ago most supervisors received formal training from their companies, learning how to set goals, settle disputes and reward good performance. But companies are increasingly focusing that time and money elsewhere.
According to a study by Bersin & Associates, spending on leadership development as a share of employee education budgets fell 20 percent last year. Translation: Your manager is probably making it up as he goes along.
But you don’t have to. Career consultants say the current office environment offers outstanding opportunities for employees who – far from lying low – are increasing their role at work by actively supporting their boss. There’s a term for this, of course: It’s called “managing up.” What does this mean in practical terms? To come up with a surefire plan for job retention, we talked to a slew of management gurus and, to keep it real, to corporate leaders who are bosses themselves (boy, did they give us an earful). Here, 10 strategies that employees in almost any job can use to help keep their bosses happy – and keep themselves off the street.
PUT IN THE HOURS — WHEN IT COUNTS
The choppy economy has us spending more time at the office; according to a survey by the Society for HumanResource Management, 50 percent of workers say there’s more pressure to work long hours now than there was a year ago. Roughly half of all workers also say they’re increasing their hours to impress the boss and shore up job security. But bosses say they don’t actually care how many hours employees work, as long as the job gets done. Yes, managers expect late nights or a sacrificed weekend in a crunch. But when it’s just for show, you’re wasting your time. Shai Littlejohn, an entertainment lawyer, says there’s nothing more annoying than an employee who brags about his long hours – it strikes her as self-serving. Plus, she can’t help wondering, “Why can’t you finish your job in a normal amount of time like everyone else?”
Another reason to pace yourself? There’s actually evidence that working long hours can hurt your performance. A study published this year in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that middle-aged workers who consistently worked at least 55 hours a week scored lower on reasoning and vocabulary tests than counterparts working 40-hour weeks. A second study found that medical residents working 90 hours a week showed the same impairment level as those who drank 4 ounces of vodka.
Most bosses understand that a work-life balance creates a happy, productive employee; they appreciate a worker who paces herself to maintain peak performance. Crowley, coauthor with Kathi Elster of Working for You Isn’t Working for Me, suggests that employees tell their bosses exactly what they need: “I have to leave tonight at 7” while explaining, “I need some rest because I want to do the best job possible.” And if you happen to get caught goofing off on the job, don’t pretend you’re not. Steve Richard, chief executive of Arlington, Va., sales outsourcing firm Vorsight, says it’s annoying to approach an employee and watch him switch from Facebook or a sports site to a spreadsheet. “I’m human – I look at ESPN too,” he says. “Don’t hide it from me.”
David Via, vice president of sales and marketing for D’Addario, a Long Island music-accessories manufacturer, offers unusual words of praise for his national sales manager: “He reads between the lines.” For instance, Via recently CC’d this sales manager on an e-mail to another employee who wanted advice on a big contract. “I’ll see if I can do it over the weekend,” Via wrote. The unspoken message? “I’m totally swamped!” Via was delighted when the manager immediately offered to review the contract himself.
Putting yourself in your manager’s shoes can earn favor, but it also takes the sting out of bad boss behavior, says management consultant Lynn Taylor, author of Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant. In interviews with 200 bosses and employees, she found one factor underlying practically all the supervisors’ most annoying behaviors: fear. Whether a boss is being demanding, critical, stubborn or needy, chances are she’s scared of failing or looking bad to her own boss. “It’s not about you,” says Taylor. The employee can turn things around by addressing the underlying problem. If the boss is stressed about a big presentation, for example, the employee could offer to help.
Of course, the source of a manager’s freak-out isn’t always readily apparent. Tim Reeves, CEO of Philadelphia advertising firm The Neiman Group, says employees don’t realize how lonely it can be at the top. They tend to depersonalize their boss and forget he has his own burdens. That isolation creates an opportunity for the thoughtful employee who sincerely cares for his boss’s well-being – and is confident enough to ask about the boss’s concerns and priorities. On the other hand, any boss can tell when it’s just self-centered brownnosing, says Reeves: “A gratuitous inquiry into ‘How are the kids’ is not what I’m talking about.”
DEFUSE A BAD SITUATION
In the late ’90s, a Harvard Business Review study confirmed many employees’ worst fears. Researchers interviewing hundreds of executives found that almost all supervisors sort their subordinates into an in-group and an out-group – typically within five days of meeting them. It gets worse: Once an employee gets lumped in the out-group, the boss literally doesn’t notice the person’s accomplishments; he notices only failures that reinforce the initial impression.
The researchers say a frank, face-to-face discussion is the best way to break the cycle. But the supervisor may never request that meeting – bosses dread confrontation as much as employees do. “It’s no fun to tell someone they’re not cutting the mustard,” admits John Erwin, president of call-center provider CareNet. Instead, the bad feelings fester until it’s time for layoffs – and guess who gets cut.
When an employee takes the initiative and calls a meeting, “It’s a huge relief,” says San Francisco human-resources consultant and 5 O’Clock Club coach Susan Bloch. That doesn’t mean begging for help, however; that just puts pressure on the boss. Rather, a shrewd employee will identify job objectives that he hasn’t met, pinpointing reasons for failures and suggesting a better approach. This method works for onetime blunders as well. An employee who brings a mistake to his boss’s attention – and comes armed with a solution – can win points for candor. Erwin says he’d rather hear the stupid truth about a situation (“I forgot!”) than a dozen lame excuses.
BE A CONDUIT
The boss who surrounds himself with panting sycophants is an old clichÚ, but the stereotype has little basis in reality. Fact is, leaders worry about overlooking unpleasant truths in the office. Elster, a Manhattan business strategist and executive coach, says some bosses are so desperate for straight information, they hire folks like her to grill employees and report back. No surprise, then, that an employee who tells the ugly truth is “invaluable to the boss,” she says.
Stuart Udell, CEO of 550-employee online college Penn Foster, found that as he rose higher in the ranks, he heard far less negative feedback. So he particularly appreciates employees who clue him in to festering problems. He fondly recalls a warehouse manager who took smoke breaks with coworkers and came to him with insider intelligence. At another company, Udell relied on a sales VP who told him when the finance and product teams weren’t communicating. He didn’t regard these folks as snitches, he says, because they never trashed individual colleagues. Indeed, Elster advises against tattling about an employee’s ethics or performance, because it looks vindictive and self-serving.
Bosses say they also value employees who help them understand when the troops are confused or misinformed. Justin Honaman, director of customer intelligence at Coca-Cola (KO: 53.82*, +0.36, +0.67%), says he loves employees who pose the questions in meetings that everyone else is afraid to ask. It helps him do his job. After all, he has no way of knowing what his team doesn’t know. On the flip side, he dislikes employees who ask questions engineered to put him on the spot. “It’s funny for a few minutes,” he says, “but you don’t forget it.”
ASK FOR HELP
Bosses say they love an employee who asks for help. Not only does it show humility and a desire to learn, but it’s also a subtle form of flattery – “ego-stroking for the boss,” says Ridgewood, N.J., executive coach Bill Belknap. In fact, self-reliance can backfire. John Southard, partner at Overland Park, Kan., architecture firm Hollis + Miller, says younger associates try to impress by handling everything themselves, but those who seek advice perform better and advance faster.
Still, bosses say it’s easy to tell when an employee asks questions just to get attention, and Belknap agrees that some take this tactic too far: Ultimately, an employee who brings every problem to her boss looks lazy. Smart subordinates exhaust every resource – coworkers, Google, Twitter – and approach the boss with only their toughest challenges.
CONNECT THE BOSS’S WAY
When it comes to deciding when, where and how to communicate with the boss, pro wrestler The Rock said it best: “It doesn’t matter what you think!” Subordinates need to adopt the manager’s style, says Bloch, the human-resources consultant. That means delivering information in a format the boss can process. The late management guru Peter Drucker observed that some folks are fantastic readers who don’t retain much of what they hear.
Hard-core listeners, meanwhile, comprehend little on the printed page. If a subordinate keeps writing memos for a listener, Drucker wrote, “the boss will think the employee is stupid, incompetent and lazy.” Experts also divide the boss ranks into analytical types and big-picture folks. The analytical boss needs to hear all the details supporting a conclusion. The big-picture boss just wants to know how a recommendation relates to her goal.
But one communication rule applies to every boss: Keep it up. In fact, it’s best to overcommunicate, until the boss says to back off. One of the most common reasons for a bad performance review is an employee’s failure to track his boss’s top priorities, says Bloch. She suggests a regular exchange in which the boss and subordinate review the employee’s agenda.
We don’t need science to tell us that bosses prefer employees who request more responsibility. Still, there are studies to prove it. A recent analysis examining decades of research on workplace personalities found that proactivity – the tendency to show initiative and seek opportunity – is the top predictor of an employee’s performance rating and likelihood of advancement.
These days, of course, everyone’s assuming wider duties, whether they want to or not. A CareerBuilders poll this summer found that 47 percent of workers say they’ve taken on more responsibility thanks to employer layoffs. But showing initiative doesn’t necessarily mean extra hours, says Belknap, the executive coach. It can mean exchanging a task for a higher-level assignment or finding a clever way to solve a problem. Even if your suggestion is dismissed, just making the effort “puts you ahead of the pack,” he says.
Udell, the Penn Foster CEO, still gushes about the project manager he hired to develop an online testing system back when he ran the K-12 division at Kaplan. Before a big sales meeting, the manager noted that the division’s Web site needed an overhaul. He suggested a consultant who could do the job in just six weeks – for less than $12,000. This didn’t require much effort on the manager’s part, but Udell appreciated that the employee was anticipating the challenge his boss was facing: “He knew I’d be standing in front of my sales force having to explain why we had such a crappy Web site.”
Bosses hate the office complainer, because an employee with a bad attitude can infect the entire team. But positive employees quickly earn their boss’s favor. Before Erwin, the call-center president, rose to the executive suite, he liked to position his most positive employees right near his desk, simply because the cheerleaders helped him stay upbeat: “The smiles and supportiveness keep you charged up.” It’s not just a big boss ego trip. Positive folks really do perform better in the face of challenge and rejection. In a study of 15,000 workers who took an industry test and applied for a life-insurance job, University of Pennsylvania researcher Martin Seligman found that within two years of hiring, the optimists significantly outsold the pessimists. Meanwhile, a subgroup of 130 optimists who failed the industry test (but were hired anyway) outsold everyone.
Larry Rivers, president of Fort Valley State University in Georgia, says he couldn’t do without the positive attitude of his prize employee, Judy Carter, dean of the university’s College of Education. When Rivers took his job in 2006, he launched a plan to double enrollment within five years. There was plenty of grumbling from folks who said it was too much too soon. Not Carter.
When Rivers asked her to start three new teacher-prep programs, she started seven, attracting 500 new education majors. She also tirelessly campaigned for the changes, meeting with professors and administrators to explain how the growth would lead to more research funding, higher salaries and travel money.
“She gets people to buy in,” says Rivers, who notes that the school wound up reaching its five-year goal in just three years. “A good attitude is contagious.”
Of course, the cheerleading can backfire if it’s not supported by results. Vorsight CEO Richard says he’s frustrated with salespeople who set optimistic goals and fail to deliver. He needs accurate forecasts to manage cash flow, and the puffery is “very annoying.”
MAKE LIKE MINI-ME
They say that if you want to be the boss, you should dress like the boss. That’s true. But here’s an even better reason to copy your supervisor’s look: It creates an instant connection. Research shows that we feel more comfortable and trusting around people who reaffirm the validity of our own choices, and that includes our choice of fashion. An employee who adopts the boss’s look is saying he’s on the boss’s team, says Clearwater, Fla., image consultant Kelly Machbitz.
Yes, this sounds fairly creepy. But it doesn’t mean being a clone. An employee doesn’t need to dress like his manager every day. Rather, it’s a strategy for face-to-face meetings. Nor does it mean slavishly imitating the boss’s look down to the last detail. Instead of buying the same Ralph Lauren striped shirt the boss wore last Thursday, a zippy stripe from another designer will do. Successful mimics also decode the unspoken boundaries of their manager’s attire; they never show up looking more casual or sloppier than the boss looks on his worst day.
There are other sartorial strategies that establish trust on a subconscious level. An employee who upstages her boss by dressing more formally or expensively looks out of place and signals that she’s gunning for her manager’s job. Machbitz also recommends building a wardrobe around reassuring colors. Brown, navy blue and gray convey competence; black and bright red are aggressive and threatening.
GET YOUR FACE TIME
Forced to choose between a “competent jerk” and a “likable fool,” any boss will swear he’d pick the jerk. But that’s not how it works in real life. In a study analyzing more than 10,000 work relationships across four white-collar companies, Stanford and Harvard University researchers found that time and time again people choose likability over competence. They also found that perceived likability depends, in part, on something as simple as how much time people spend together: We like folks with whom we are familiar, and the better we know someone, the easier they are to work with.
No wonder Americans spend so much time dining and golfing with the boss. While the days of bringing the boss home for dinner are long gone, a recent survey of six-figure executives found that 55 percent said socializing with the boss was good for their career, and 27 percent believe it’s a necessity. Only 17 percent said they never hang with the boss outside work. Alas, this is one area where employees have to let the boss take the lead, says Crowley, the psychotherapist. If the boss extends an invitation, it’s bad form to say no, but inviting the boss for drinks or a round of golf nearly always comes off as manipulative.
Most bosses have very firm ideas about how and when they want to socialize with subordinates. Southard, the architect, says he and his partners put a lot of thought into a formal program of office events for socializing – including “Thirsty Thursdays” coordinated by a “Ministry of Fun,” plus scheduled coffee breaks. So when an employee comes by outside those hours to chitchat, he can’t help wondering, “Are they bored?”
Still, there are subtle ways of orchestrating face time. Littlejohn, the lawyer, says she appreciates being included in group invitations via e-mail (“Going to lunch – anyone interested?”). Selecting a conference or seminar to attend with a boss shows initiative, and the process of learning together can be a bonding experience. Folks who bump into the boss outside the office should keep it friendly but brief. Rivers, the university president, says he tries to be polite, but employee encounters can interfere with his grocery shopping: “That gets to be a little trying at times.”
2009 Copyright The New York Times Syndicate