8 things your boss wishes you knew

If you want to get on your boss’s good side and do better at work, one way is to understand her perspective – and the perspective of a manager can be very different from yours as an employee. Here are eight things that your boss probably wishes you knew.

1. Bring solutions, not just problems. If you just bring your manager problems, she has to solve them – but think how much more valuable you’d be (and how much time you’d save her) if instead, you brought proposed solutions. Even if your manager wants to respond differently, having a proposal to react to is easier than having to start figuring it out from scratch.

2. Everything has a trade-off. When you’re responsible for only one piece of the pie, it’s easy to think that solutions are obvious. But when you’re responsible for the whole pie, it’s gets far more complicated; decisions that seem easy for you may require a trade-off somewhere else. For instance, you might not understand why your manager won’t approve your request for new software. But approving your request might mean that she has to cut her budget somewhere else, plus explain to a different employee why they can’t have the training course they requested.

3. Your attitude matters almost as much as your work. Managing a team can be exhausting, and it’s significantly harder when a team member is resistant to feedback, difficult to work with, or just plain unpleasant. Even if your work is good, many good managers will refuse to tolerate poor attitudes – and you could find yourself without a job or significantly hampered in your current one.

4. If we say yes to you, we’d have to say yes to others. It might be just fine for you to work from home two days a week, but not for the whole department to do it. And if your manager allows you, it’s likely that others will want to also. Managers can make exceptions for individuals, but in many cases, it will cause morale problems or even prompt accusations of treating one group differently than another. (There are times when this is okay – for instance, it’s okay to treat high performers differently than others – but your manager is considering a wider landscape of impact than you might be.)

5. Feedback is meant to help you. Really. It can sting to hear what you’re not doing well enough, but imagine if your manager never bothered to tell you: You wouldn’t progress in your career or get merit raises, and you might wonder why others were getting better assignments and promotion while you were passed over. Managers (most of them, anyway) don’t give feedback to make you feel bad or put you down; they do because they want you to do well at your work – both for the company’s sake and your own.

6. Taking ownership is huge. It might be fine to merely execute a project that someone gives you. But it’s far better when you can truly own the work – meaning that you’re the one driving it forward, obsessing over it, spotting problems before they arise and addressing them, and generally taking the same sort of responsibility for it as you might expect your manager to with her own work. Approaching your work like this can be what takes you from a B-player to an A-player and can pay off dramatically in the course of your career.

7. We expect you to be a grown-up. That means that we expect you to try to find the answer yourself before asking us for help, to resolve your own interpersonal issues with coworkers, to have a work ethic that means your work doesn’t change when we’re not around, to avoid causing drama in the workplace, and to otherwise behave like a professional adult who doesn’t need to be told to do these things. That said…

8. We want you to ask for help when you need it. Most managers do want to hear when you’re struggling, whether it’s with a particular problem on a project, a difficult client, or an overwhelming workload. Don’t hide your problems in the hopes that they won’t be noticed – speak up when you’re struggling and ask for advice. Good managers will welcome it.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob Aught*

    Wish you’d added a #9 – “We don’t know if you don’t tell us”

    Much like your post this morning about an employee not wanting to take on a different role. So often we find ourselves in awkward situations because someone hasn’t spoken up. I found out through a casual conversation that a top employee was interested in management. They were so quiet and reserved I never considered them! With a little coaching and a different set of assignments we got them into a lead role, which they performed quite well in.

    In other words, never assume we know everything! I try to stay on top of things and get regular input but this sort of thing happens so often that I’m no longer surprised when I find out someone doesn’t want to take on a new job, or that they do want to learn a new technology, or whatever “It” is.

    1. fposte*

      I would agree, and I think this one comes up a lot here in different forms. (I’m remembering the poster who was anticipating being put where she didn’t want to go and was wondering how to complain–it hadn’t occurred to her to ask for the one she wanted.)

      And I *love* it when my staff says “Hey, could I be a part of this?” The answer isn’t always yes, but I will always remember the desire and try to find a way for it to be fulfilled.

  2. Runon*

    The bring a solution with your problem I get. I am (today!) having a problem that the solution for is, it’s the vendor’s issue to resolve, I can’t do anything to fix it here’s my temporary work around. But I have no answers as to why it happened, no idea what the solution is, how long it will take them, or any of the other questions. This is extremely frustrating for me and I’m sure for my boss too, any suggestions how how to handle a situation where you simply can’t solve it?

    This comes up for me quite a bit and I really prefer to take a solution to my boss, because then they are starting from my solution which, clearly I think is the best solution. But sometimes the solution is a poor fix, a workaround, or a bandaid because the real resolution is outside of what I have access to.

    1. Rob Aught*

      I’m a big fan of facts.

      Keep in touch with the vendor, find out what their progress is. Do they know the solution? If so, what is it? If not, what are they doing to find out what the solution is? Have they identified the problem?

      It is fair as the customer to ask these questions. I’ve been on the vendor side of the equation and it’s not right to just leave a customer hanging. Sometimes when we weren’t sure of the problem I’d let them know what we were doing to determine what the issue was so they knew we were actively engaged.

      If you are having issues getting answers, that is what you bring to your boss.

      “We’re having [X] problem and the vendor needs to resolve it. I am having issues getting information from them and may need your help to get concrete answers from them”.

      Remember that asking for help was in Alison’s advice as well.

      1. Runon*

        Part of my issue is I’m a part of a smallish (400) division of a large division of a larger org and so the vendor only communicates with a different large division who communicate to a small division who communicate to a person who talks to me. Basically I’m about 4 steps removed from actual information and they’d prefer I be 3 more steps removed but my boss has actually made sure I’m at least in direct contact with the other division some how. But I still want to bring solutions and information as best I can.

        Though reading that obnoxious structure makes me feel a little better that I get much of anything done some days.

        1. COT*

          Sometimes you really do need your boss to just solve the problem for you–and it sounds like in this case your boss has a good understanding of that. The best thing you can do may be to make your boss’ role in the solution as easy as possible. For instance, if you need X from the vendor and the vendor isn’t responsive without your boss stepping in, you can give your boss clear communication about X to pass along. That way your boss doesn’t need to spend time understanding and summarizing the issue–you’ve already done that. They just need to use their status/power on your behalf.

          I think that counts as “bringing a solution” in a situation like this. The solution is, “I need your help accomplishing Y, so here’s how I can make that as easy as possible for you to do.”

        2. Rob Aught*

          I think you identified a good part of the problem already based on the org you just described!

          All the same, doing the best with what you have is often the sign of a good employee. I used to say “I ask for what I need, but I make do with what I have.”

          Though now that I am in a role to be asked, I try to get people what they need but it still takes time.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d recommend trying to imagine how your boss would handle it herself, and then doing that (or telling her that you’re planning to do that, if she agrees). For instance, if you suspect your boss would go over your rep’s head to complain, or stay on them daily until the issue was resolved, or give them a deadline for resolving it, or begin looking at alternate vendors, or whatever, then instead of bringing it to her and waiting for her to do or suggest that, make that your own plan of action. Or if you think that isn’t the right plan, then decide what would be more effective, and propose that. In other words, imagine that the buck stops with you and figure out how you’d handle it (if this were your own business, for instance). Sometimes that helps.

      1. -X-*

        For sure.

        But sometimes it’s not possible. I was needing information from a person outside my organization who simply refused to return my phone calls or emails. I could say I was calling on behalf of my boss, as myself, for my organization, whatever – he simply wouldn’t return my call. This was a pattern. This person would only communicate with “principals”, not assistants or lower-level people, regardless of the content or purpose of the conversation. And his assistant would not help me.

        At one point my boss told me, again, to “Just call” so I did, and my boss watched/listened to me leave a message. “Good message, I’m sure he’ll call back” my boss said. The person never did. So finally I got my boss to call. Boss gets called right back.

        And PS – I deal with very important people all the time and am respectful of their time and needs. But this person didn’t care.

        Annoys me to this day.

        1. Jessa*

          Yeh, in this case your boss needed to deal with this. There are a group of people who as as type refuse to deal with the gatekeepers or assistants to people who really do not have the time to bother with that garbage. However, whenever I ran into that, I’d tell Boss and Boss would call and be all “Either talk to Jessa or I find someone who will. I do not have the time for this garbage, I pay her way more than you make to deal with this FOR me. Capisce?”

      2. Runon*

        There are definitely some cases where our hands are tied for things like vendor choice, or platform choice in this case. So I feel like the best thing I can do is come up with a work around, an alternate plan. I have done things like make a case for why something really is a serious problem and is impacting hundreds of staff so it can start to go over people’s heads when that would be effective but rarely has action been taken on that. (Which is fine, but is that something that would be useful in general?)

  3. Katie the Fed*

    Another one – give us (some of us) time to process your requests or concerns. Just because we don’t answer right away doesn’t mean we aren’t going to address it or don’t care. It might take a day or two to come up with the right solution.

    1. Ruffingit*

      Good point! Employees do need to remember this. I’d add for the boss side of this though to give a concrete timeline and please stick to it!! Say “I need to check on/think about this. I’ll get back with you on Wednesday afternoon.” You may not be able to be that specific, but “by the end of the week” or something is better than nothing. Quite often, problems and requests are brought up and then no one gets back to the employee. They may or may not bring it up to you again, but if they don’t, it is usually because they are now thinking “I’ve discussed this with her once or twice already, clearly she doesn’t give a crap” and it creates a lot of problems that a simple timeline and then sticking to it could solve.

      And by the way, I’d add this as well – even if you come back on Wednesday and say “I’ve not received an answer from higher-ups about that issue you brought to me yet, but I expect to receive one by next week” that is SO APPRECIATED!! Keep the employee in the loop. Don’t think you need to communicate only when you have a solid answer. It’s nice to know the process is going forward, so communicate that! At least the employee then knows you haven’t forgotten/tossed off the issue as unimportant.

    2. Kelly O*

      The corollary to this for me is – are you at least communicating that to your reports?

      Because I will say what irks me to no end is the boss who demands an answer that second to her questions, and then seems to completely ignore requests for information from those farther down the org chart.

      I work with someone right now who is VERY adamant and downright rude about “her” time and its perceived value, although she has no issues with interrupting others or taking advantage of her status on the org chart with no regard to others’ time (especially when it comes to staying over.)

      I guess what I’m saying is, all these things are great, but it’s imperative on a manager to model the behavior they want to see, at least in my mind.

      1. Hooptie*

        I believe this kind of applies under #2 – your boss is/may be trying to juggle multiple puzzle pieces, and needs an answer from you RIGHT NOW since she (may) see you as only juggling one part of the whole while she’s trying to put the rest of it together.

        Not knocking your perspective at all, Kelly, but I consider my team the experts at what they do, and I expect that for most things they can respond pretty quickly. I do try to give them the same consideration, but if I have 15 requests for assistance from my staff while my boss is asking for something, I need to get him taken care of so I can help my team.

        1. Jessa*

          Agreed, but there’s nothing wrong with saying that. And if you normally respond pretty quickly that works anyway. The big problem is lack of communication. If someone asks the boss for x and boss never says “look, seriously busy, a day or two or ask Sam,” they sit there thinking they’re being ignored. If a particular employee is asking too much or for stuff they don’t need to, that’s a conversation that has to happen with them about their priorities vs management’s.

          Part of the problem is a lot of these things listed as “what your boss wishes you knew,” would be “not things,” if bosses would just TELL people these things. None of this needs to be secret.

  4. Ruffingit*

    #5 works both ways. It would really be helpful in the workplace if managers would accept feedback as well that may sting. And I know that good managers do this. Unfortunately, I’ve had many that absolutely will not accept any kind of feedback to help make the task/workplace/manager better. And I’m not talking about snarky, passive-aggressiveness. I’m talking real feedback when a manager is doing something that isn’t helpful/is hurting the team, etc.

    Just something for the managers to keep in mind. You’re the boss, but your subordinates can sometimes see things in you that you cannot. Don’t make your employees afraid to give constructive criticism of your work performance. You may learn something!

  5. ChristineSW*

    #4 – If we say yes to you, we’d have to say yes to others

    Alison – How would you (or any other managers here) handle it if the “yes” is an accommodation for a disability or a parent who needs flexibility to care for a family member with special needs? (I’m actually speaking from the employee side).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d say something like, “There were unusual circumstances in Jane’s case, but in general we don’t allow X because…”

      If it really seems to be causing an issue and I think the coworker getting the accommodation would be fine with having more explanation shared, I might ask them if I can share more (without tons of details though; for instance, “in Jane’s case, we’re accommodating a medical situation”) but I’d want to make sure that was okay with the employee first.

  6. AdAgencyChick*

    #7 — oh my god, yes. It drives me up the wall when a direct report calls me with a question that indicates s/he hasn’t tried searching on the company intranet first.

    1. Sabrina*

      I’ve never been a manger, but I do agree with this. I find that I pick up on things faster than others, and I end up being the person that folks ask questions of. It’s very frustrating when they either ask the same question over and over again or if it’s something they could figure out if they bothered cracking open the manual now and then.

      1. -X-*

        And the converse is annoying too. I’ll email a certain person in my organization and ask “Where can I get information about XYZ” and instead they email me (or worse, print out) the information about XYZ. Which means I don’t know where it’s filed, and if I want to refer to it in the future have to save it somewhere myself.

        So I write have to ask “Could you please let me know where/who this information is saved, for future reference.”

        I guess my first request isn’t clear enough.

        1. Jessa*

          Exactly. Which is why I used to annoy some people, because any time someone sends me a “help me with x” thing, I also include in the report back the how and where of what I found for them.

          Even when friends ask me to look things up (I’m the family Google Queen,) I send the search terms along with the results. It’s a bit passive aggressive but it’s my way of marginally educating people as to how to do it themselves.

          What bugs me is when management doesn’t like this. I used to work customer service for a call centre and part of that task was helping the lower tiered agents. They were SO crazy about talk time that Gods help you if you tried to show someone where to look up the answer for next time. They’d rather have wasted our time every time the person needed the answer. Made me insane.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      I always feel like that’s what I’m doing–when I’m new, I don’t know where to find the answers. I keep reminding myself of that now that I’ve been here a while. The departments or people I need to talk to are a bit more apparent to me. Also, my boss is very hands-off, but the manager is a bit more receptive to questions, so sometimes I’ll ask her if I just can’t figure it out.

    3. Katie the Fed*

      Or, God forbid, something I’ve already put out in an email that you didn’t bother to read.

      1. Hooptie*

        YES YES YES!

        As a recovering micromanager (IS there a Micromanagers’ Anonymous? j/k), this makes me crazy as well.

        I need to know that people are organizing their information and using their resources. It is so disheartening to create a reference chart, for example, then have to resend it because someone says, “I didn’t get that” or even worse, “I didn’t understand it” but doesn’t ask for clarification.

  7. Sabrina*

    Re #1, this is something I try to do, it’s just frustrating when your boss cuts you off before you’re done talking and won’t let you get to the solution part.

    1. Kelly O*

      Sabrina, I witnessed that just this morning. She stood at the cube next to mine and asked someone to explain the problem. Then, while the person was still explaining, she said “well I can’t tell you the solution if you don’t stop talking so do you want an answer or not?”

      So yeah, if you figure out the solution while someone is still explaining, at least have the decency to let them finish what appears to be a succinct overview and then answer, or agree with the proposed solution.

      1. Sabrina*

        Yeah my (old) boss just interrupted me and told me it was something that couldn’t be fixed, even though I had ideas on how to help the problem. It was a training issue and she just laughed it off and said “Once we found out a whole department was doing something wrong for three years!” So I figured, OK well no one cares, why should I. It’s just not a hill I’m interested in dying on, ya know?

  8. Scott M*

    #6 (ownership of your work) I agree with this.. up to a point. With many jobs, there is a certain area of responsibility. I find that sometimes managers expect that ‘taking ownership” means doing your job as well as other peoples jobs. Going that ‘extra mile’ isn’t extra when you have to do it all the time. At some point you need to put your foot down and reduce the scope of your ‘ownership’ just to remain sane.

  9. Ed*

    It’s amazing how many people don’t realize #3. I know several manager friends who told me their company used the recession as an excuse to get rid of difficult employees. They had to suck it up and handle the extra work for a while, then eventually told their staff the funding for the position had returned and hired someone new. From an employee perspective, I would gladly do more work if given the chance to get rid of difficult co-workers. I always applaud managers who let people go when it is deserved even when the team is already struggling. It’s worse for morale to let people get away with stuff.

    I also had a friend who was a difficult employee that had a wake-up call during the recession. Every department had to let one person go but things like seniority weren’t a factor. Most departments let either their last hire or most junior member go but her boss let her go instead. She was the most senior person in the department and eventually would have had her boss’ job. But she also constantly questioned his decisions and made his life more difficult in general.

    The funny part of the story is that her boss told her HR selected her position to be eliminated. When HR found out during her exit interview they made him come down on the spot and admit to her face that his was his decision alone and he was free to choose anyone.

  10. Vicki*

    #8. We want you to ask for help when you need it.
    … Good managers will welcome it.

    Here be dragons.

    This was one that bit me hard at LastJob. I didn’t realize just how passive-agressive my manager was until I needed help. (I brought a problem along with a proposed solution). I thought we’d solved the problem.

    4 months later, “Vicki isn’t helpful and asks for help instead of doing her job” popped up in my review. (Given that my 360 feedback is typically “Vicki is extremely helpful”, I can only blame the manager.)

  11. Anon*

    Regarding #1, I think that definitely depends on the manager. I would aways propose solutions to problems but my manager would either be offended that I came up with the solution without her or disregard my ideas and then a couple of days later would suggest the same solution that I originally came up with. Ugh, i’m glad I quit that job.

  12. jesicka309*

    Ugh at “if we say yes to you, we have to say yes to everyone”.

    I totally understand the motivations behind it, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t drive me crazy.

    I’ve asked numerous times for extra training and responsibilities, only to be told ‘we would have to offer everyone the same opportunity’. It’s not really extra if everyone gets it, is it? And I’m the only one who has asked, correct? The idea of me asking for more responsibilities and training is to boost my own skills and set myself up for promotion, not everyone else. Can’t you reward me for being a high performer instead of holding me to everyone else’s lower standards?

    Same goes for pay raises. If they gave me a raise, they’d have to give everyone on my level a raise too. There’s ‘being fair’ and there’s deincentivising the job.

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