10 Tips to Interpreting Your Boss

boss January 4, 2016 By: Liz Ryan

Ever wonder what your boss is actually thinking? Here are some insights into your supervisor's mind, motives, and wishes.

Workers have it tough these days. Longer hours, more work, fewer perks and "bennies." But if you think your boss is the source of your higher stress level, you might be surprised. Being a boss—fending off pressure from both above and below—is harder than ever these days. Sure, there are incompetent, unfriendly, and just-plain-evil bosses out there, but the majority of middle managers are reasonable people who are trying to do the best they can for the employees they supervise and the higher-ups.

Skeptical? We've polled middle managers and developed this list of 10 things your manager wants you to know: "If Your Boss Could Talk (What He or She Would Say)."

When I am abrupt and impersonal, it's probably because I'm doing something I don't want to do. Feel shut down by your boss sometimes? Your great ideas may interest your manager personally, but he or she may not have the approval or the budget dollars to say yes. If your manager is acting squirrelly or suddenly gets very corporate, it may be because he or she isn't comfortable telling you, "The answer is no." A rough exterior helps shield your boss from the reality that it's him or her—not a title or a job description—disappointing you once again. A good tactic when this happens is to ask, "Is this topic uncomfortable for you?" That might throw your manager off enough for him or her to open up and tell you the real problem.

I care about a lot of stuff that you care about, but I can't make a federal case out of every slight that you experience. You have to let me pick my battles. Your boss is, among other things, the one who's supposed to stick up for you when those punks in marketing or the bureaucrats in accounting do you wrong. But there are only so many battles that one person can fight. Don't be disgusted when the boss doesn't march off to blast someone in HR on your behalf because they goofed up your insurance claim again. Let things go sometimes.

Don't try to make me King Solomon, especially about the small stuff. Your boss is saying, "I know that you and your coworker both want the cubicle next to the window, but I really don't want to have to make that call. I'd rather see you play rock-paper-scissors, if I had my way. When you try to put me in the King Solomon mode, somebody ends up being upset about something really inconsequential. I'll be very grateful if sometimes you and your colleague can figure these things out on your own. You don't even have to tell me when it happens."

I don't want to watch you like a hawk, so don't give me a reason to. Here the message is, "With precious few perks to dole out, I'd love to at least give you some schedule flexibility, the little that the workload allows. I'd let you come in and leave the office when you choose (roughly) as long as the work gets done, if you're a great employee in every other way. So make my job easier, please, and get your work done and don't disappear just when you're most likely to be needed. I can give you a little slack if you work with me, but if you don't, I'll have to come down on you like a ton of bricks."

You will always be more familiar with everything about your job than I will. Here your boss wants to say, "Remind me what you're working on, what's causing you trouble, and what's going well. Remind me what's important to you and what you need from me. It's hard to remember the priorities, needs, and obstacles of my department members, so any help you can give me is welcome. I do value you, but you're just much closer to your work than I am. If I'm micromanaging you in your own work, let me know."

The majority of middle managers are reasonable people who are trying to do the best they can for the employees they supervise and the higher-ups.

When you're angry with me, let me know. The boss wants to say, "I've got a lot on my mind. You could spend two weeks on hard stares, monosyllabic answers to my questions, and other pointed signals that you're mad at me, and I might still miss the message, so just tell me what's wrong. Pick a moment when I'm not up to my eyeballs in crises and ask me for a quick meeting. Tell me what I did that ticked you off and why it was a bad call. I promise to try and listen and not be defensive. If you don't tell me, how will I know?"

Don't ask me to tell you what you know I can't talk about. Are layoffs coming? Are we merging with XYZ organization? If the boss knows, he or she can't tell you: "If I could tell you, I would. Don't ask me to tell you what you know I can't, and don't be offended because you think we're friends and I should spill the beans. Don't create tension by making this unreasonable request."

Bring me problems as far in advance as possible. Any boss loves to be surprised when things are going better than expected, but the opposite is not true. "Don't surprise me with bad news. Let me know far in advance when something's not working. At the last minute, problems are much harder to solve, so feel the fear and tell me anyway that Project X is behind schedule. I may shoot the messenger just a little, but it's better than my reaction will be further down the road."

Create a feedback network to give me painless advice on my management style. Here's how this works. "If I badger Sally mercilessly, and I tend to ignore Joe, then trade feedback bits and deliver them to me in a friendly way. Sally, say to me, 'You know, Stan, you're probably not aware of it, but at times you seem to miss what Joe is telling you.' I can take that without being defensive. And Joe, you say to me, 'You know what, Stan? For some funny reason, even though you're a patient guy in general, you seem to give Sally a lot of grief.' That way, no one has to take the feedback heat on themselves, and I still get the message."

Don't do anything stupid. Finally, a boss might conclude, "I can help you out if you goof up to a certain degree, but if you misuse the organization's credit card, download garbage from the internet, or slug a coworker, you're gone. So help me out and don't do anything stupid."

What's the gist of what your boss is telling you? Let's work together. Why create tension in the relationship when the environment has enough of that already? You might as well team up with your boss (and vice versa) to lessen the stress and get the job done that much more easily. And if you put yourself in your boss's shoes just a little, you'll be surprised how much you learn. You might even consider becoming a boss yourself!

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published in 2003, has been updated.

Liz Ryan

Liz Ryan is founder and CEO of the Human Workplace, a coaching a consulting firm in Boulder, Colorado.