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What Does Your Boss Really Think of You?

One of your boss’s responsibilities involves evaluating your performance and potential. In doing so, she will be sharing this assessment with other leaders in the company. If you work in a large firm, this happens in the formal talent review process, where senior leaders gather to discuss you and your peers. If you’re in a smaller company, it’s more informal, but she’s still sharing her evaluation of you with her boss and others. So, do you have an idea of how she’s representing you? How she’s describing your performance, attitude, and work ethic? Whether she supports your potential to advance in the company? This might be the hardest of all insights to read and verify, but it’s important that you have some idea of how she’s presenting you to the organization.

Three Ways Your Boss Evaluates You
There are at least three evaluations she’s making at all times, and each has to do with what she wants from you.

First, she’s comparing you to a standard or model of what she expects from a direct report. If she has been managing people for a while, she has a strong sense of what she wants in an employee (remember her preferences). Try this exercise: Write down the qualities of her ideal employee and compare yourself to this list. How well do you match up? This is the first test of whether you’re delivering what she wants, and most of this is likely to be about your makeup. Do you match her ideal profile of work ethic, attitude, passion, teamwork, etc.? While this may seem like a comparison to a fixed standard, it’s more than that. Fair or not, your boss is talking to other managers about how you match her perfect-employee model. In fact, there may be cultural norms that make this prototype fairly common across the organization.

Second, it’s a fact of life that she is comparing you to your peers. Officially this is discouraged, but trust me, it happens all the time. In conversations with her boss or other leaders (either formal or informal), she is ranking her direct reports along a number of dimensions. Do you know your place in this pecking order? Do you know how she discusses this list with her peers and how she’s representing you specifically? Do you know which of your colleagues are giving her exactly what she wants, and why? If your boss has ever said, "You need to be more like John or Susan," then you can be sure she is comparing you to your peers. While this is totally inappropriate, you won’t get a clearer picture of what she wants from you! I get this complaint all the time from clients. One client, Yolanda, had a boss spend their entire performance appraisal meeting comparing her to her peers. Besides being incredibly uncomfortable, this only confused and infuriated Yolanda; she didn’t know what to do with this bizarre feedback.

While the peer comparison may be unseemly, it’s one way that senior leaders discuss and score your contribution. Are you better than John? Are you more or less valuable than Susan? Here’s an awkward exercise you might try (write it down, then destroy the list after you’re done). From your boss’s perspective, rank her direct reports from “favorite” to “least favorite.” Where are you on the list? More importantly, what are the people above you doing that you’re not doing? Now, write out their behaviors, and compare those to your own. Are there any adjustments you’re willing to make in your approach? When I ask people to do this exercise, it always results in powerful insights about what the boss wants. In fact, some can pinpoint exactly what John or Susan are doing that works well with the boss, which unlocks the insights they need to plot a course of action. In this case, the clues to what she wants are literally all around you—all you have to do is pay attention to her relationships with your peers.

Finally, when she represents you to the organization, she’s comparing you to people in other departments. Do you know what these comparisons are like? Think back to the people she respects in the company; how do you stack up? Are these fair comparisons, and are these people worth emulating? If at all possible, try to find out the details of how she represented you in these meetings. The only way to really know is to ask her directly and hope she tells the truth. In my experience, if she says: "I told them you’re doing fine," she’s not giving you the full story. On the other hand, if she provides details about the conversation, what other leaders said, the discussion of your development needs, etc., she’s probably giving you an accurate picture of how she represented you. Mostly, this will be a “feel” type of insight based on experience and intuition. The given is that she’s talking about you; the wild card is what she’s actually saying. Try to imagine how this conversation would go. What positives is she highlighting, and what is she mentioning that isn’t so positive?

Reading Between the Lines
In my corporate life, I led the talent review process for four large companies, and the conversation goes like this: Here’s what Nick is doing well, and here’s what he needs to work on. I learned to read between the lines on the second half of the discussion; many times, it wasn’t a real development need at all, but something that didn’t fit the boss’s preferences. Is this happening to you? As best you can, try to determine how she’s representing you. After all, this is the primary way senior leaders get a sense of your capabilities, and you need to know how your brand is being portrayed across the company. There may be nothing you can do to control what she says, but you can certainly do something with the knowledge of what she’s saying.

Insights
  • Know your boss’s model of the perfect employee
  • Be aware of how she compares you to your peers
  • Learn how your boss represents you to the organization
  • Know how your boss is talking about you

© 2014 by Steve Arneson. All rights reserved.
Excerpted and adapted from What Your Boss Really Wants from You: 15 Insights to Improve Your Relationship (Berrett-Koehler 2014), by Steve Arneson. Used with permission of the publisher. 

You can gain additional insights about working with your boss more effectively in this AMA seminar: 
Partnering with Your Boss: Strategic Skills for Administrative Professionals

About the Author(s)

Steve Arneson is founder of Arneson Leadership Consulting. He was named one of America’s Top 100 thought leaders and one of the country’s Top 10 leadership coaches by Leadership Excellence magazine. He is the author of What Your Boss Really Wants from You: 15 Insights to Improve Your Relationship (Berrett-Koehler 2014).