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Succeeding with the same boss

Lessons from my marriage counselor

Last month I suggested a brown nosing strategy for “Succeeding with a new boss.” Your level of engagement on that topic inspired me to double down and offer a specific piece of advice for existing boss-employee relationships, particularly unhealthy ones.

To get us there, I start with a reader comment on the last column, posted in response to my discussion of sincerity as optional when it comes to putting your best foot forward with a new boss: “Sincerity is the most important attribute in any relationship. And if you can fake it, you’ve got it made.” Thank you for commenting on the column.

After a year of successful marriage counseling, I now fully embrace a philosophy that works for almost any relationship: Doing something nice is more important than wanting to do something nice. For example, bringing flowers home to your wife is a good thing to do, even if you’re annoyed with her and have absolutely no actual desire to do it. Positive actions, even if insincere, usually lead to a virtuous cycle of behavior from both people that can turn around a relationship. When it works, sincerity eventually follows. In this example, as the relationship improves, you may begin to actually enjoy a detour to the flower shop on the way home. Sincerity of purpose will follow the action.

Now let’s apply this simple yet elegant lesson to your job situation. Don’t think in terms of brown nosing to make a good impression with your boss—it’s too late for that. And don’t think in terms of corporate politics, which really has more to do with internal networking beyond your boss. Instead, ask yourself: What action can I take to help my boss? Don’t hold something back because you are annoyed with your boss, or because you feel slighted by a decision he or she made in the past.

Only you know what actions make sense given your role, expertise and level of autonomy. But I like to offer specific, action-oriented ideas in this column, so what follows is a list of possibilities that come to mind. See if any of these suggestions resonate as helpful “to do” items for you:

  • Go beyond just attending a CLE event. Present a verbal and/or written summary of the key takeaway points for your boss.
  • If your boss has a pro bono interest, serve that charity or legal services entity in some meaningful way
  • Find a project that is languishing in your department for lack of manpower and get it done. If that means more missed dinners at home for the next two months, so be it.
  • If there is an opening in your department, help your HR folks or the external recruiter by suggesting a good candidate. Your boss will take notice of any unselfish act that helps his or her team get stronger.
  • Find something nice to say about your boss, and say it during your next conversation with an internal business client

Your actions should eventually lead to improvements in the relationship,

including reciprocal behavior—things like promotions, raises or, at the very least, getting to keep your job if you are troubleshooting a particularly negative situation.

Even if your current boss-employee relationship is generally healthy, any one of

these actions will only enhance your success. Don’t stand pat. You have spent a few minutes to consider the content of this column. Spend just five minutes more, right now, to think about one thing you can do, sincerely or otherwise, to help your boss. For extra credit, offer an idea here in the comments section.

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