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Relationship With Manager

  Maher A. Rayes | Deputy Managing Director

  28th January, 2015

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Does this statement sound familiar? On numerous occasions during my training programs I’ve heard such utterance from participants. Also repetitively heard are statements such as: “I don’t know what my manager wants from me”, “seems that whatever I do, he/she is not satisfied” or “I think my manager doesn’t like me”. Mind you, these participants come from a wide spectrum: juniors to directors, males/females, easterners/westerners, I mean the whole nine-yards. However, there seems to be a pattern: many employees’ relationship with their managers is not in good shape. Are you currently or potentially one of these people? Do you know someone close to you who is? If yes, then read on.

There is a lot you can do to build an excellent relationship with your manager. Just keeping your head down, staying out of trouble and getting your job done is not a relationship. I believe that your remedy is to simultaneously start working and investing time on two fronts: Neutralizing misperceptions and synchronizing expectations.

Neutralizing Misperceptions

# We’ve all heard the adage: Perception is reality. What does it really mean? Here’s an example to explain it: I was recently chatting with some friends about what must-see movies are currently playing in theatres. One friend highly recommended The Great Gatsby starring Leonardo DiCaprio saying: “it’s a fantastic movie not to be missed”. Another friend totally disagreed and said: “Hey, I saw it last week, hated it and almost walked out in the middle of it”. Certainly I got confused. Who’s right here? Each perceived the same thing differently. Perception for each was reality.

Now, fast-forward to two real work-place examples. Fatima, one of my training program participants told me of an incident that recently caused a crack in her relationship with her manager. She said once her manager expressed his concern about her messy desk. He expected her to clean it up and make it more professionally looking. She agreed and intended to organize her desk. However, having already started working on two important assignments, she decided to do so right after finalizing them. It took her two days to do that. During that time her manager noticed that she did not do anything about her desk and assumed that she disregarded his feedback. He eventually called her to his office and gave her a stern talk about the importance of accepting feedback. The variance between her intentions and his assumptions caused mayhem in this manager-employee relationship. A similar story happened to another participant, Abdul Rahman who is talented with a fantastic memory. He repeatedly utilized his talent during team discussions by bringing up details of past experiences. His intention was for everybody to learn from the past and make a better future. He later found out by chance that his manager thought that he lacked maturity and judgment by living in the past! Here goes another crack in the relationship.

Good intentions are not enough. What matters is what your manager perceives of your actions (or lack of). Hence, you need to neutralize your manager’s misperceptions: clarify your intentions with your manager instead of letting him/her generate his/her own perceptions. For Fatima, she should’ve told her manager that she will clean-up her desk within 48 hours after completing her important tasks. As for Abdul Rahman, he should’ve stated clearly that he wanted to make sure that they will not repeat past mistakes, even ask his manager whether he liked him raising that issue during meetings in the first place. In both cases, problems/relationship cracks could’ve been averted!

Synchronizing expectations

# I recently succumbed to my wife’s insisting on trying a new restaurant that had just opened in town. Being a difficult patron, I wondered whether that restaurant would be up to the challenge. After we left, I had a good impression of my experience and intended to re-visit, even recommend the place to my friends. “What made me happy?” I asked myself. I realized that my “happiness” came from satisfying both my needs and primarily my expectations. Identifying needs is easy: it is the answer to what a person wants. In my case it was a specific kind of food on my mind. That restaurant had that on his menu, done. A person’s expectations, on the other hand, are beliefs about the delivery of his/her needs that serve as reference points against which performance is judged. These are how needs are to be satisfied. Trickily, we normally hide our expectations and observe. Then we judge our whole experience based largely on these un-professed thoughts. You might think how can you satisfy people’s expectations if they are hiding them from you? It is not easy, right?

Now, let’s apply that argument to employee-manager relationship. When evaluating their relationships with their employees, managers sub-consciously compare their perceptions of performance with mainly their expectations (reference points). Hence, thorough knowledge about their expectations is critical to building excellent employee-manager relationships.

You can’t safely manage the relationship without knowing what is expected of you. Have you ever asked your manager about his/her expectations, what he/she expects from you outside the obvious technical part of your job (his/her needs)? In addition to the above, you also do have some expectations of your manager. Because of this, I recently carried out an experiment using my training participants. Over several sessions of managerial/leadership programs, I asked managers to identify their expectations of their employees. I asked them to forget about the “needs” part and to concentrate on other than the technical part of their employees’ job. I noted a sample of their repeated expectations below:

I expect my employees to…

“Achieve Excellent Quality and quantity of output”.
“Offer ideas on how to make the department better, improve processes”.
“Solve low to medium-level problems without referring to me”.
“Collaborate with colleagues”.
“Develop self, drive own growth”.
“Be proactive”.
“Be dependable”.
“Listen to my feedback”.

On the other hand, in administration programs, I asked non-managers to list down what do they expect from their managers? Below are also some of their repeated expectations:

I expect my manager to…
“Motivate me”.
“Coach me”.
“Make me feel important”.
“Show me how my work affects the whole operations”.
“Give me my promotion/career path”.
“Treat me well”.
“Listen to me when I need a bouncing board or have a problem”.
“Respect me”.
“Give me feedback, talk to me. Don’t leave me in the dark”.

Do you think the above managers’ and employees’ expectations contradict or complement each other? Let me make it easy for you to judge by placing both lists next to each other:


I expect my employees to… I expect my manager to…
“Achieve excellent quality and quantity of output”.
“Offer ideas on how to make the department better, improve processes”.
“Solve low to medium-level problems without referring to me”.
“Collaborate with colleagues”.
“Develop self, drive own growth”.
“Be proactive”.
“Be dependable”.
“Listen to my feedback”.
“Motivate me”.
“Coach me”.
“Make me feel important”.
“Show me how my work affects the whole operations”.
“Give me my promotion/career path”.
“Treat me well”.
“Listen to me when I need a bouncing board or have a problem”.
“Respect me”.
“Give me feedback, talk to me. Don’t leave me in the dark”.

Obviously, both tables complement each other. For example, if a manager wants her employee to solve low to medium-level problems without referring to her, she has to coach her employee. Conversely, if an employee wants his manager to give him feedback, he has to help his manager by listening to his feedback!

In reality, both parties normally hide their expectations from each other. And each party is frustrated from the other that they are not meeting their expectations.

The best way to have an open, trusting and excellent relationship with your manager is by sitting with him/her from time-to-time for a heart-to-heart talk just to synchronize expectations. I do agree that both manager and employee and liable to get this meeting into fruition. But don’t sit waiting for your manager to initialize such a meeting. Most probably he/she’s handling tons of matters and having several people to manage. Go! Take the initiative and suggest the meeting. I find that having “catch up” meetings and asking for feedback is instrumental to an excellent relationship with your current manager. By continually keeping in contact with him/her, exchanging expectations and letting him/her know what you’re doing would work miracles in your relationship.

After 28 years of being a manager and being managed by different managers, I came to realize that the road to building an excellent relationship with your manager had been through neutralizing misperceptions and synchronizing expectations. Try doing just that and see where you go in your relationship with your manager.