The Observation Strategy: 4 ways to understand your boss

Image Credit: Hand by Geralt (

Image Credit: Hand by Geralt (

What if there was one person at the office who had the ability and authority to promote you? Increase your flexibility. Fund your MBA studies. According to the 80/20 principle, sustaining and growing your relationship with that person will pay significant dividends, more than any other single person.

Who is that person?

They have different titles at different organizations. Boss, manager, supervisor, director and vice-president are some of the common titles. They write your annual performance review, influence your work assignments, impact the opportunities you receive and play a key role in your ability to seek a promotion.

Yet too many of us have a negative, confrontational or hostile attitude to our managers. Films such as “Office Space” (a modern comedy classic!) and “Bad Bosses” have encouraged this dysfunctional perspective. Operating under this negative mindset significantly or fatal undermines your opportunities for promotion, development and growth.

Today, I will lay out a framework you can use to build a positive working relationship with your manager. If you have a negative traction ship with your manager, this process will still work though it will take longer and require more effort on your part. Without further ado, let’s get started.

Observation: Knowing is half the battle

In his classic book “The Seven Habits of High Effective People,” Stephen Covet shared a piece of timeless wisdom: seek first to understand, then to be understood. That habit is essential to understanding your manager better. Observe and seek to understand these five aspects of your manager to get started.

1. Time habits: are they a master of the clock?

A manager’s approach to time management provides insights to help us work with them better. Start by observing your manager’s arrival and departure times from the office. Next, look at their pattern for meetings – are they generally early or late? Finally, note whether they are falling into the trap of double booking themselves – a sure fire way to guarantee confusion and stress. Once you have these basic points in hand, align yourself with your manager’s good habits.

2. Say What: observe manager communications

It has been said that project managers spend 80% of their time on communication. This pattern holds true for most managers. Done well, effective communicators inspire, engage and help their people. Poor communication is frustrating or even destructive. Observe the following communication habits over a few weeks:

  • Speed of response to email: some people emphasize fast responses while others take a longer approach (note that many managers prioritize their communication with their managers or important stakeholders so your experience may need to be taken with a grain of salt).
  • Reading or listening: observe how your manager functions best in taking in new information. For example, when faced with a new problem or opportunity so they prefer to review a detailed written document or a live meeting.
  • Level of formality. Some managers refer to take a formal approach and focus their communication predominantly on business matters. Others are more at rates with jokes, banter and occasional share details about their life beyond the office.

3. Observation: excitement and anger triggers

Learning thread your manager’s emotional state helps you relate to them better. Emotional intelligence is a complex topic. Today, you will discover two simple signs to look for in your manager. Excitement – smiles, faster talking and other signs – suggests what topics, goals and activities that excite him. Anger – shouting and worse – suggest areas to avoid or increased potential for conflict. Let’s go deeper in both of these points.

Excitement triggers

Of all her responsibilities and projects, which activities spark excitement? When someone is excited at work, you can sense their increased energy. These topics are areas that you can connect with your manager on easily. Working on a project that excites your manager is a great example of win-win thinking. Excitement is all about potential and anticipation. Start with these two excitement triggers.

  • Tone of voice. Detect excite run by listing gut changes in tone of voice. This tip is especially¬† helpful if your manager tends to have an then or monotone speaking style.
  • Vocabulary. Listen and look fit words such as “my top priority”, “my passion” or “I’m excited to start. These words generally signal excitement. Take note of these comments during meetings.

Anger triggers

Anger happens in the workplace. Your boss may be frustrated with a slow system, a missed deadline or something else. Noticing anger triggers will help you better understand how to communicate with your manager.

  • Angry body language. Angry thoughts come out in different ways. You might hear passive aggressive comments. Or you may encounter physical actions – pounding on a table or desk. Such moments often reveal the person’s hot buttons. It’s painful to e counter these moments. However, observe and take note to improve next time.
  • Verbal abuse. Being subjected to verbal abuse is painful. However there is a useful signal in that angry noise if you reflect on what your hear. An angry manager is frustrating. If you see a continuing stream of angry outbursts, start to look for a new job. In the meantime, look for patterns and aim to avoid the anger land mines.

There is one other way to make positive change from angry outbursts. Make a note of the worst cases in your Delta File. When you are promoted to management, these observations will help you to do better. In the short term, use mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercises and the 5 Minute Journal to stay calm and collected.

4. Diplomat or dictator: observing meeting style

Project managers and other professionals recognize that central importance of meetings. A well run meeting achieves results, builds trust and moves the organization forward. Participating in meetings with your manager matters. Here are a few items to observe in meetings.

  • Interruptions. Does your manager interrupt frequently? This may be a sign of disrespect if the pattern is repeated regularly.
  • Agenda focus. Observe how closely¬† your manager follows the agenda. Following a clear agenda is a key habit of highly effective meetings.
  • Conflict management. Conflicts happen in meetings, even simple differences of opinion. It’s valuable to know how your manager handles conflict in the heat of the moment.

As you observe meetings, look for good ideas you can copy. I have learned certain phrases and behaviours that signal active learning. A meeting, even a poorly run one, has lessons to teach you if you seek to observe and learn.

Action challenge. Understanding how your manager behaves is essential to learning how to work with her effectively. Which if the above observation strategies will you use?

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