As we drove along the winding road to Maracas beach in Trinidad, my friend Scott said to me, “You know, I’ve come to realize that there’s only one thing you really need to get when you have a boss.”
“Really?” I replied; my sense of intrigue and wonder stimulated because Scott is one of the most insightful people I know, and usually when he is waxing reflectively as he was doing at that moment, you could expect the imminent deposit of a wisdom nugget.
Adding to my sense of anticipation was my knowledge of Scott’s current job situation. He was working in a highly political organization and dealing with the future of a project that had lots at stake in terms of reputations, time and investment. Several people could lose face or even their jobs and emotions were riding high.
Scott smiled and said, “The one thing you need to get, and I really believe this to be true,” pausing for effect, “ is that making your boss look good is all that matters. Your personal opinions, assessments and judgments really don’t count.”
I thought about this for a moment and reflected on my own boss/subordinate relationships and experiences. I could see what he was pointing to. In almost every situation that I can recall throughout my many years of working in and around corporate environments, people suffered and many lost their jobs because they didn’t get along with their bosses; perhaps because they didn’t understand this one simple principle of corporate organizational life.
“So Job #1 is making your boss look good? No matter what?” I asked.
“Or leave,” he said. “If you have trouble with this principle consider this:
Your boss hired you to get his or her job done. The entire reason behind organization is that nothing gets done without other people. In fact, isn’t it a guiding principle behind the Practice of Your Life (the name of this blog) that all human beings need the help and support of other human beings to live a great life?” he asked.
“Yes, in fact it is imperative that you get this one principle if you intend to accomplish anything big in life,” I confirmed.
“Well then,” he went on, “If you think of an organization whether it be a non-profit, a government agency, or a Fortune 500 company, one person leads – the CEO in the case of the Fortune 500 company – and makes commitments to the owners (represented by the board) and is accountable to the owners for the fulfillment of those commitments.
This executive is then responsible for putting together the organization and structure required to fulfill on those commitments. This essentially boils down to the hiring of other executives who hire managers, who hire other mangers who hire their staff as far down as is necessary to fulfill the commitments made to the owners. “
“So in this simplistic but accurate view,” I added, “any person that works in an organization is only there to help their boss’s part in fulfilling the CEO’s commitments to the owners of the company.”
“Precisely,” he replied. “You would think that managers would get this principle, but resistance to bosses exist at all levels of organizations – sometimes for good reason – but often simply because people forget what they are there for. I should know this, but I lost sight of it over the last few months and I’m beginning to see how much this has been causing me grief. I was completely caught up in my own judgments about my boss being overly political, and uncaring about anything else but his own career. And you know what?” he asked.
“Tell me.” I said.
“Turns out than on several key decisions that my boss forced through – that I vehemently disagreed with – turned out to be the correct decisions.”
“Wow. How did that make you feel?” I asked.
“Tired.” He laughed. “Really tired. I spend all this time second guessing, trying to do what I think is right, judging my boss and the whole political corporate culture, and all I end up getting is tired. It really made me think, ‘What am I doing here?’ ‘What am I here for’, and those are really powerful questions to ask yourself. To have a practice of asking” he winked at me, and I smiled.
“Because when I asked that question,” he went on, “I became clear that I was here to do a job for other people. In fact I gave my word to do so, and all I had been doing was creating resistance to keeping my word. I have been creating my own suffering by resisting my boss. Who it turns out was/is a lot smarter than I had given him credit for.”
“Brilliant.” I said. “But doesn’t that lead to a passionless drone-like existence?”
“It very well could”, he said “but that’s where your ambition comes into play, where what you have been telling me about living your life as a practice comes into play. If you have no ambition, no story of what you are creating with your life, then yes this could lead to a numb, zombie like existence in your working life. But if you do have an ambition, a living evolving story of your life, then you have options.”
“One option is to work with your boss to align with your story; the other option is to go somewhere else where your work does align with your ambition.” I added.
“Exactly,” he said “ you create your own game. Another scenario is that your boss might even start sharing more about what’s going on in his world and start helping you help him; which dramatically changes your experience of working with him or her.”
“So the moral of the story for anyone having a hard time with their boss is ‘put your personal opinions on the shelf”? I asked. “What if your boss is unprincipled, incompetent or worse … corrupt?”
“Well then you have some serious ethical questions to deal with and in the end you probably should leave.” He paused, and then added, “and I pity the thousands of souls out there who feel they have no option but to stay under the dominion of such a person. That I think is truly hell on earth.”
“But unethical bosses aside, you’re saying that what you think about your boss really doesn’t matter? I asked.
“It really doesn’t. You know why?” he asked rhetorically. “Because your boss can fire you! It’s that simple.”
I thought about that for a minute and then added, almost to myself “and or make your life absolutely miserable.”
I was remembering a time I suffered under a tough boss, and why I stayed. I stayed because I felt I had no options, that I could not earn the money I was earning anywhere else. I was remembering how terrible that felt. In fact, I got my first significantly grey hair from that experience.
“Yes you may have a bad boss – in fact it is a bit scary how many people are incompetent bosses – and it doesn’t matter,” he said. “Unless you are a political player and have the chops to sabotage and climb, complaining about how bad your boss is only serves to create your suffering, and entrench your position as a victim.”
“Instead, invest your time and energy in understanding how to make your boss look good, and then proceed to do so,” he finished.
“You’re right,” I added, “I think making your boss look good should fall under an overall practice of being of service to others, but it’s just as valid to cultivate a special relationship with your boss based on a practice of making him or her look good to those higher up in the organization.”
I hope this partly fictitious conversation offers a helpful insight into your relationship with your boss. Just don’t forget to ask yourself questions like Scott asked:
- What are you here for?
- What are you doing with your life?
Difficulties with your job or your health are often nature’s way to get you to install a practice of asking these questions.