Years ago, I wrote an article on the importance of the boss/subordinate relationship for Science’s Next Wave, our predecessor site. That piece described four critical areas of work-style “fit” between the supervisor and the employee and gave examples showing why it is important to explore this carefully before accepting a job. This month, I’m going to update my thoughts on the topic.
I was reminded about this subject recently while interviewing a candidate, Don, who was having trouble with his job search. Don is a biochemical engineer. His curriculum vitae shows a solid undergraduate education and a Ph.D. from a top department. It also shows, unfortunately, two short stays at companies, which is a red flag for some employers. Don was getting nervous because he was several months into a job search with nothing to show for it.
'How do you work your way through a problem?' is a good question to ask a prospective boss before you sign on, if you have the opportunity.
During our interview, it became clear that at his most recent job Don had what Human Resources (HR) staff call an interpersonal issue. “I just don’t know how to explain these job problems,” he told me in our interview. “Most of the time, the HR staff asks me about why I left the companies instead of about my accomplishments. I know that I’ve been referenced, and it may be my boss who isn’t supporting me.”
Don beamed when he talked about the hands-on part of his job. “When they brought me on board, the need was for production capability for clinical trials. I had the knowledge they were looking for to get their research molecule into clinical production,” Don said.
His obvious enthusiasm diminished when he talked about his former boss. “My boss was one of the three founders. He is the kind of guy who doesn’t understand much about engineering; he’d been a biology professor before taking off with this technology. Nothing that I did made any sense to him. I got that molecule into a partner’s pilot plant in less than 8 months. Later, he told me they needed someone with more technical savvy.” As far as Don could tell, he had done his job well. But he had not gotten credit for what he had accomplished.
Maybe Don could have foreseen those interpersonal difficulties if he had looked closely at the type of boss he was committing to. That's not an easy thing to do, however, so let's think it through.
Key factors to consider when matching boss and subordinate
I’ll use the same four categories I wrote about years ago and add some new observations and examples. The goal is to give the reader some ideas about the match between the boss’s work style and your own. These work-style factors come from the classic book, Sacked! Why Good People Get Fired and How to Avoid It by Richard Gould (Wiley, 1986):
The approach to work. Everyone has a different approach to getting the job done. Don has a casual, “take it as it comes” approach. He relies a lot on his intuition, which hasn’t often failed him. He believes his place is right there on the pilot plant floor with his laptop and cell phone.
Don’s former boss, on the other hand, wants strong control of projects from behind his desk. He wants those projects planned in extreme detail right from the beginning. His scientific training taught him to be very analytical.
These two types -- the heavy planner and the free-and-easy fast-mover -- are natural antagonists. Executive recruiters know that putting the two together is a recipe for disaster unless both are self-aware, forgiving, and committed to the relationship. The “cautious planner” boss must give the subordinate room to do the job with a minimum of structure. The free-and-easy employee has to recognize that the boss's insistence on more structure doesn’t mean he distrusts your abilities.
How they think through a problem. Don loves problems. He loves being right in the middle of things, reacting and solving problems as they occur. His boss loves problem solving, too, but his approach is far more distant and abstract. The boss deals with problems on paper, or on a computer screen.
The boss's desire for behind-the-desk control also means lots of paperwork, which Don is averse to. He has always clashed with bosses because of his paperwork aversion. Don is very effective at solving problems on the fly and moving on. His philosophy about written reports is to “give them the minimum that will get me by and then deal with the rest as it comes up,” he told me. But for the boss who requires reports and analytics, solving the problem on the floor isn't enough; it also needs to be solved on the boss's desk.
“How do you work your way through a problem?” is a good question to ask a prospective boss before you sign on, if you have the opportunity. It’s certainly a question he or she should ask you before making you an offer.
How they arrive at decisions. Two people can make the same final decision but get there via completely different routes. Don tends to go with his gut feeling, an approach that drove his boss up the wall. “They hired me because they knew that I had the training necessary to accomplish the work. Why wouldn’t they trust me that I’ll make the right decisions?” Don asked me.
Despite what his former boss thought, Don's decision-making process worked fine. But he did need to show some flexibility. When you work for a boss who arrives at decisions only after a great deal of analytical thought, you need to provide that boss with a lot of information, the inputs into his decision process.
Furthermore, natural antagonisms can exist merely as a result of the speed of decision-making. Don's boss viewed Don as an impulsive decision-maker; Don, meanwhile, found his boss indecisive.
How they approach other people. Perhaps you’ve taken a Myers Briggs course or some other training program that teaches the different styles of interpersonal communication. The common ground for these programs is that it is not your style that counts. The important thing for effective communication is to adapt yourself to your boss's preferred style.
The "golden rule" is different when it comes to professional interpersonal communications: If Don communicates unto others -- specifically, unto his boss -- as he would have others communicate unto him, there's going to be trouble. Don needs to take responsibility for communicating with his boss in the way the boss prefers. (It's less critical with peers, but the same approach applies to all professional relationships.)
I helped Don understand that he needed to slow down a bit and present his views in a more studied, objective manner, with less apparent passion and more facts. (Don's poor fit with his boss was exacerbated by the fact that he's a very fast talker; here, too, he needs to slow down.) One of the most important working skills a person can develop is the ability to recognize how others prefer to be approached, and the flexibility to approach them that way.
Testing the water
After our conversations, Don realized that he had not been exploring these relationships sufficiently before accepting a new job. In his past interviews, he had concentrated too much on selling himself and too little on learning about the position. He never asked about his prospective boss’s working style, management style, or attitudes.
I suggested to Don that he start asking prospective bosses about their working style. He was worried his interviewers would find this question presumptuous, but he found that, in fact, companies appreciate such questions. Smart questions make you seem like a better candidate, not a worse one.
It does, however, help to think in advance about how to phrase such questions. Here is one suggested phrasing: “Tell me about one of your most successful people and how that person’s work style dovetails with yours.”
In the 13 years since I wrote that last article, the job market has softened considerably. Interviews are much harder to get and harder to succeed in. New jobs are harder to find so old ones are more costly to lose. Asking the right questions and doing due diligence in interviews can help you succeed at getting -- and keeping -- a good job.