Warming Up A Chilly Boss

By Matt Villano | THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: March 5, 2006

Q. You're in the third month of a new job, and your professional relationship with the boss is uncomfortable. How can you break the ice?

Chris Reed

A. Nobody wants an awkward relationship with a superior, but don't come on too strong in trying to improve it. Pam Lenehan, president of Ridge Hill Consulting, a corporate strategy firm in Needham, Mass., said that pressuring a boss to warm up could backfire.

"The last thing you want to do is make the boss feel like you're forcing a certain kind of relationship," said Ms. Lenehan, author of "What You Don't Know and Your Boss Won't Tell You: Advice From Senior Female Executives on What You Need to Succeed" (Syren Books, 2006). "Careers are like rockets in that if yours gets off target in the beginning, your situation will only get worse."

Q. What kind of professional relationship should you expect?

A. Everyone has a different leadership style. Does your boss appear to be friendly or does she keep to herself? Simple observations can give you a better sense of how she likes to relate to employees, said Anna Soo Wildermuth, president of Personal Images, a career consulting company in Elmhurst, Ill.

"It's unfair to you and your boss to assume you'll have a certain relationship until you've had a chance to see how your new boss works," she said.

Q. What are some likely causes of awkwardness?

A. Some people just don't concern themselves with pleasantries in the workplace. Karen Leland, president of the Sterling Consulting Group, a management consulting firm in Sausalito, Calif., said that when leaders were under pressure from upper management , they might not have time to focus on being nice.

Ms. Leland, co-author with Keith Bailey of "Watercooler Wisdom: How Smart People Prosper in the Face of Conflict, Pressure and Change" (New Harbinger, 2005), added that a boss could also be vexed by events in his personal life.

Other people approach new employees with a certain degree of reserve. Ilise Benun is one such boss. Ms. Benun, president of Marketing Mentor, a consulting firm in Hoboken, N.J., said she was "not the warmest person" in the workplace, and revealed that when she recently hired a new employee, it took her months to stop treating the new worker with stiff formality.

"I can't help it, but it really does take me a long time to let my hair down," Ms. Benun said. "I have been in situations where I can envision what it would be like to be warmer, but I can't bring myself to do it because I fear it will create too much vulnerability for me and my firm."

Q. When should a strained relationship warrant concern?

A. If a distant relationship with a boss is hindering your ability to fulfill your professional responsibilities, sound the alarms. Debra Condren, president of Business Psychology Solutions, a performance development firm in New York, said employees should become wary if a boss doesn't include them in meetings, fails to return e-mail messages or phone calls and appears to be generally uninterested in what they are doing. Other warning signs include a lack of chitchat, eye contact and simple salutations.

"The real red flag is when you're not getting any communication cues," she said. "Without a communication mechanism in place, employees are powerless to know if they're doing a good job, and that uncertainty can be devastating."

Q. What are the first steps toward ending the awkwardness?

A. Take a few days to reflect on the situation. Talk things through with someone you trust, perhaps even with a colleague. Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., said that getting someone else's perspective could be invaluable in determining the scope of the problem.

"A lot of times, awkward relationships have anxiety or fear of failure associated with them, and that anxiety prompts us to blow things out of proportion," Mr. Nurick said. "We all approach work with our own baggage, so it's important to make sure you're seeing the situation objectively before you act."

Employees should consider whether they can adjust to the boss's style. If Fridays are particularly busy days, for example, confer with the boss on Thursdays about projects. If the boss never responds to questions about her family, stop asking. Bill Wiersma, president of Wiersma & Associates, a management and consulting firm in Pleasant Hill, Calif., said that this kind of flexibility was critical, because the boss does not have to change. You may have to.

Q. At what point do you discuss your disappointment with the boss?

A. Wait at least six months. If the relationship hasn't thawed by then, schedule a private meeting. Be respectful, never accusatory. Judith E. Glaser, author of "The DNA of Leadership" (Platinum Press, 2006), said employees should couch their concerns in questions about fine-tuning their performance to meet the boss's needs. Ask specifically what you can do to increase the value you bring to the organization, she said.

"It's amazing how well bosses will respond if you take the touchy-feely language and put it into business terms," said Ms. Glaser, who founded and is chief executive of Benchmark Communications, a management consulting firm in New York. "At the end of the day, you're both there to advance the company."

Workplace or career topics may be sent to ccouch@nytimes.com.

Power and Influence

By Judith E. Glaser | Leadership Excellence
Published March 2006

Decipher the language of leadership.

Power in the workplace has traditionally been defined as force, dominance, assertiveness, strength, invincibility, and authority.

As we observe others rise to higher levels of leadership, we ask ourselves “How do they do it?” Our observations can easily lead us to conclude that the most powerful (most dominant) make it to the top and that the rule of thumb is that to rise to a leadership position, we must bring into play our behaviors of force, dominance, aggression, and strength.

However, power and leadership are being redefined. No longer are we comfortable equating leadership with force, and power with dominance. In forward-thinking corporations, power is shifting from I-Centric to We-Centric, and this shift requires a commitment and a plan of action.

Throughout history, leadership has been critical to performance, to success, and to the greater good. The “leader” is often perceived as a solitary, charismatic figure, similar to a movie star. People behind the scenes are often not acknowledged, despite the fact that all play critical roles!

Who of us wants to be the actor on stage and who wants to be behind the scenes? Who of us sees ourselves leading initiatives to successful conclusions? We each must choose our roles.

The distinction between the leader and others is not a gender distinction. Women can rise to leadership positions, as long as they understand how.

In the movie 9 to 5, administrative assistants are initially intimidated by their boss’s arrogance and allow him to take credit for work they accomplished. The women finally ban together to create a force he is unable to reckon with. They take over their workplace and create an environment in which they and others thrive.

In Working Girl, Melanie Griffith plays an administrative assistant to a female boss, who steals her ideas and presents them to impress a business partner. When her boss falls on a ski slope, Melanie moves into position to represent her idea in her most charming, tactful way, and to show her boss’s true deceptive colors in a public forum.

All of us, both men and women, face similar challenges every day: How to bring our leadership ideas, voice and talents into the world without stepping all over others? How to exercise our talents in a world with other talented executives through fair and honest interactions and dynamics, without one-upping, stepping all over each others’ toes, deceptively undermining, intimidating, taking credit from other’s success, or self-promoting.

Dominance and Submission

In the climb up the ladder of leadership, we need to find ways to move up to the next level. How we influence others along the way will determine how we climb. How do we use our power and influence in ways that create support around us?

Learn how to positively influence. The meaning of influence ranges from the dominant and authoritative, to the more important and significant. At one end, it is being influential because of “fear.” At the other end, it is being influential out of recognized importance, significance, and contribution to the greater good. To be recognized as important—to have others see our talents and reward us—is the challenge that we all face in the rise to the top.

How can women get recognized? Why do women have more difficulty making it to the top? Women have as much ambition as men. On the rise to the top, however, women tend to experience more obstacles along the way, and over time their ambition is diluted, obfuscated, and mitigated. We give-up and give-in—since fighting for what we want gets exhausting. When the obstacles feel like they are too big to overcome, we look for other avenues to fulfill our dreams. We leave and tell ourselves it’s just not worth it.

Men get rewarded and chosen more often because men have a more dominant voice. Women start careers with the same level of ambition, yet encounter forces that challenge their strength and tenacity to make it to the top. One challenge comes from the hardwiring differences of men and women—how each responds when something they desire is taken away.

Men and women respond differently when they face the loss of a desired object—a job, a car, a paycheck, a promotion, or a project. When something men desire is taken away, they tend to become more aggressive and go after what they want. Males are more dominant and will go into fight behaviors more easily and quickly than females.

Females are more submissive in the face of loss. They may respond by crying, calling for someone to come to them. The female instinct is bonding. Rather than turning to their aggressive responses, women are more inclined, when a desired object is removed, to want others to comfort them. The pejorative labels of submissive, acquiescing, unassertive, deferential, and meek are often given to women.

These are both truths and stereotypes, yet we are influenced by these beliefs. The challenge of women rising to positions of importance remains our power-puzzle to be worked out.

Here are some guidelines: Create a feedback-rich culture to establish healthy relationships. Make beliefs transparent. Create communication signals to move forward together in a healthy way.

Shift from an I-Centric to We-Centric behavior and mindset. Emotional IQ: Self-awareness and self-management. Collaborative IQ: Ability to build mutually beneficial relationships with others. Innovative IQ: Making the future health and success of the enterprise the center of attention.

Avoid potential de-railers: Failure to manage your bio-reactive behaviors; failure to build mutual relationships with others; and making you the center of attention.

ACTION: Assess your use of power.