In a boss-employee relationship, it's understood that the boss is in a higher position. The boss is there to manage, and the staffer is there to support and make the boss look good. But what should you do when you work with a boss, particularly one who is only a couple years older than you, who views and treats you more like a competitor out to take her job than an ally? We reached out to two leadership experts for advice.
Susan Packard, media executive, speaker, author and co-founder of HGTV
It's not an all-bad situation, according to Susan Packard, whose upcoming book New Rules of the Game: 10 Strategies for Women in the Workplace emphasizes gamesmanship approaches to success. "If you’re that good, bravo! Those who are average performers don’t normally get others feeling competitive. So good for you; you’re a high performer!" she says.
When dealing with a competitive boss, Packard suggests figuring out how important your boss is to your success. "If they’re peripheral to your advancement, just minimize the contact with them," she says. "There are bad eggs in every company. It doesn’t matter how hard you screen when hiring. They eventually get weeded-out of organizations that are paying attention to culture." But if you rely on your boss so you can get your job done well, you're going to need to discuss how you're feeling face-to-face, Packard says. "Start with sugar. Invite your manager to lunch or coffee during an afternoon break. You need to confront the discomfort you’re feeling by airing it with him or her, and over a meal or coffee gets both of you out of your workspace, into neutral territory. Explain how you’re feeling, provide an example, and wait for a response.”
"If airing this doesn’t improve your rapport, given the critical nature of this person to getting your work done, you may need to go higher up. But know that there’s 'good' competitive” as well as 'bad' competitive. Wanting to win for your company is great, a common quality of high achievers. You can win for your company and not take others down in doing it. That’s the essence of my book.”
Steve Arneson, PhD, executive leadership coach, speaker and author
To deal with a competitive manager, Steve Arneson, author of What Your Boss Really Wants From You and Bootstrap Leadership, recommends trying to understand where your boss is coming from, how you're being perceived by your boss and changing your behavior. There's no use complaining. "You have to accept you’re not going to change your boss. Some bosses have hidden agendas and hidden motives. They’ve got their habits, their ways of doing things and their motives, which they may not show you. You have to see the situation for what it is and adjust your behaviors, your attitudes and your approach.You just have to try different methods," he says.
Start by observing co-workers who get along with your boss, Arneson suggests. "There’s always one co-worker who gets along with the boss pretty well," he says. "You want to figure out how they have such a great relationship. Watch them. When do they approach the boss? How do they speak to them? What tone of voice do they use? What’s the dialogue like? Pay attention to how your peers are doing that, and maybe try to adopt some of their behaviors.”
If your boss passes you over for important opportunities, address it, he says. "You have to set a clear agenda with your boss that you want to do more, and let that be known, even to some other people outside that direct boss relationship. And if you want to establish a relationship with your boss’s boss, tell him." As for how to deal with a boss who always has competitive words for you? "If it’s infrequent, you can ignore that, but if it’s pretty frequent and it seems kind of nasty, and it’s sarcastic, but it’s meant to make a point, have a conversation with him about it."
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