Q: My boss is hard to figure out. Sometimes he acts like he's not paying attention, other times he has me under a microscope. Even more confusing, I'm never sure he's going to have my back when issues come up. How can I get better support?
A: Be clear on what you absolutely need from him, what you'd like and what you can get from others.
Like most people, you've probably had an outstanding boss sometime in your past. This will have given you an example of how good a boss can be.
The potential risk is that this can be a tough act to follow. Consider the aspects that met your most important needs as an employee and those that are just nice to have. Also, make a point of remembering the aspects that were less than perfect in this same individual.
Most of us have also have examples of the other extreme — the nightmare boss. What do you take from that experience — what is completely unacceptable to you in terms of boss behavior? And can you think of some positives for that boss?
Now put it together to see where your current boss fits on the continuum. How good is he in general? More importantly, identify specific positive characteristics and negative aspects. To what extent are behaviors that turn you off deal breakers? After all, there are downsides to even the best boss.
Having set priorities regarding the support you'd like from your boss, make a plan to close the gaps. Keep in mind that you can't ask for changes unless you're specific.
Thus, for the most important issues, write down exactly what happened, how you felt and the outcome. Then rewrite history — what changes would turn it into a positive story?
None of this preparation is worthwhile unless it's paired with communication. Set up time to talk with your boss, or use a regularly scheduled one-on-one meeting.
Be sure to be in a neutral state of mind so that you're not going into the conversation with an edge. Have a general topic of "ways we can work together even more effectively."
Be ready with some of the positives of your working relationship. And then tee up your top priority item, using "I" statements; for example: "I feel confused when you want high-level updates sometimes and granular detail other times. Let's talk about your expectations with each project so I can give you what you need."
The touchiest issue may be with feeling like your boss isn't looking out for you. Start by thinking through whether there are other interpretations and then be clear with him about the experience.
If you're not comfortable having these conversations, that's another matter. You need to learn how to ask for what you need; however, if you have reasonable cause to think that he'll react badly, you may need to look for a different boss.
Finally, keep in mind that you may not get all of the support you need from one person. Consider options among peers for mutual support, or pursue finding a mentor among others at your company.
Bottom line: Be sure you're in the driver's seat with getting the backing you need.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at email@example.com.