I’ve seen my share of holiday office parties and happy hours, where everybody has had a few cocktails, and suddenly the entire department is hugging and singing “Sweet Caroline.” For those few hours everybody thinks they’re friends with everybody else, and the normal facade of professionalism drops. And people are more honest than usual. Perhaps more honest than they should be. (“I never liked Glen from technology, but I really like you, Felicia. I really, really do.”) And then the next day everybody goes back to being their buttoned-up selves.
Now, the one good thing about those kinds of gatherings are that people are saying things that they’ve been holding back. You get a better sense of people and see that they have their own opinions about the company and its policies. It’s a breath of fresh air! But experiencing that type of honesty isn’t always easy or common. For the sake of your career, we’ve got a guest blogger today who is that honest. Author Hank Gilman calls himself an accidental manager, meaning that he’s someone who rose through the ranks of his profession without setting out to be the boss. That’s why he knows the mindset of everyday workers like us and also understands the quandaries new mangers find themselves in. Fortunately, he’s answering the questions many workers have but can’t ask.
So skip the appletinis at the next happy hour and listen to Gilman’s advice instead.
I’ve been a boss in the media business for more than two decades now. It’s kind of simple job in the sense that there are only a few basics involved in doing it well. (Other than not being a sociopath.) You give feedback. You hire. You fire. You dole out raises — or you don’t. It’s a great gig, really. The pay is good and your troops pretend, for the most part, that they like you. Unfortunately, employees don’t have it so easy. They have no clue, much of the time, what makes their supervisors tick. And, as a result, they worry too much about what the heck their bosses want from them. I recently wrote a book called “You Can’t Fire Everyone: And Other Lessons from an Accidental Manager.” The few people that read an early version—the ones that report to me anyway — said pretty much the same thing about various parts of the book. That is: “I didn’t know you thought THAT!” I had no idea I was so mysterious. But, in that spirit, here are some questions, and answers, from me that will help you tap the inner-mind of your boss and, hopefully, manage your career a little better as a result.
Feedback: Should I ask my boss for more?
Yes. But proceed with caution. Just between us, I’m not the biggest hand-holding guy on earth. I guess that’s because, back in the day, I never liked spending much time with my bosses. I figured the less I was around, the lower the odds were they’d stick me with projects I wasn’t keen on. (It’s the out-of-sight-out-of-mind thing.) Here’s the way I looked at it: I came up with ideas, did the research, and wrote the stories. If they were published and I got raises, that was enough feedback for me — thank you very much. That said, there are a few things you should know.
First, many bosses are spineless and actively avoid confrontation. Nor do they like to deliver bad news. It’s human nature. Basically, your supervisor won’t feel compelled to give you feedback unless you’ve done a terrific job or totally choked. (The later because they really have to.) Unfortunately, it’s the stuff in the middle that you need help with. So, you’re going to have to ask. Nothing wrong with finding out how you could have done a better job on a specific project. Tossing around ideas is always great fun. The caveat? Don’t be whiny and needy on a frequent basis. Many years back, I had a writer who felt compelled, every other day it felt like, to walk into my office and ask why he wasn’t getting enough feedback on his work. I think I finally cracked and said something like, “Ok, here’s some feedback. You don’t come up with many good ideas. And when you do the stories aren’t good enough to publish.” Well…he asked.
Can you be friends with your boss?
Maybe. In an old episode of the TV show, “The Office,” Steve Carell’s character, Michael, said to a new employee, and I paraphrase, “My number one job is being your friend.” If only. Sure, people who spend a lot of time working together become friends, even if it’s a boss-employee thing. That’s the way it is. But there’s a silent code of conduct: You should not expect a raise because of the friendship; you should never take advantage of that friendship for better assignments or a promotion (or expect either); you shouldn’t anticipate employment in perpetuity. If you follow the code, you’ll be OK.
For you corporate ladder-climbers out there, the bigger problem is when you become the boss and have to supervise your friends. Back in the 80s, when rock bands like Huey Lewis and the News ruled the airwaves for some reason, I was named the business editor of the Sunday Boston Globe. My pals in the newsroom seemed like they were ready to throw a party. Come to work late? Check. Longer lunches? Check. Softer deadlines — or any deadlines? Check. Well, I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. Some of them actually thought those things. I was tested immediately. A close friend turned in a poorly-written story that she must have wrote on the subway on the way to work. I figured out pretty quickly that if I didn’t fix it, it was my job that would be on the line. So, I re-wrote the story and she bitterly complained to my boss. I think she said, among other nasty things, that I was an idiot. But as far as my boss was concerned, I passed my first test.
(Note to future bosses: It’s either you or them, and it might as well be you.) There’s kind of a happy ending to all this, by the way. We remained kind-of-friendly. She invited me to her wedding. I think I ended up at the “cousins” table, though. As Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton once said, “Loneliness is the Penalty for Leadership.” Yup. He was right.
Do bosses get angry when you ask for a raise and resent you forever?
No. Not the good ones anyway. This is one of the great myths of the boss-employee relationship. Now, I’ll confess, I never asked for a raise in my 35-year work-life. Partly because I was always afraid of getting fired– and partly because I always felt lucky to be paid to write about people who were actually doing more important things than I was doing. But that’s just me. No one is going to think badly of you or have you escorted from the building. You’ll get the raise because you deserve one and your boss wants to keep you happy; or your boss might tell you that money is tight and be patient, which is often true. Or, in an act of ultimate feedback, she’ll just say “no,” wave you off and quickly take a phone call. (Even when the phone’s not ringing.) Then you’ll know it’s not a raise you should be worried about.
If you get a job offer– and tell your boss you’re considering it– should you polish up your Linked-In profile?
No. That’s another myth. It’s certainly a pain in the rear when one of your employees comes in with a job offer in hand. But it’s a little flattering in a way. (I know a few of our competitors that nobody will recruit from.) It also lets us, the bosses, figure out how much we really want you. And it helps you figure out how much you really want us. Just don’t do it on a serial basis if you really do like where you work. Because if it is an “I can get a raise out of this” trick, it works only a few times. And only if you’re a bona fide star. And, before I forget, don’t ever tell your boss about a job offer and not be prepared to [accept] it. There’s a good chance you might not like the response. Like: “What a great opportunity! Keep in touch.” They might not view you as an “A” player or may not like you or both. Or they had their eye on someone on the outside and you just helped them, as they say in the National Football League, clear out some cap space. Just pointing that out.
Hank Gilman is the deputy managing editor of Fortune. This blog is inspired by his book, “You Can’t Fire Everyone: and Other Lessons From an Accidental Manager.” (Portfolio / Penguin) On sale now.