Friday, May 15, 2009

The paradox of the boss: what s/he sees versus what s/he knows

Most of the conversations I've had with interns over the past three or four years have related to signal checks.  An intern explains a situation or pattern of behavior to me and asks if they ought to be angry about it (because they usually are) and how can they rectify the situation.  The questions I get generally boil down to communication issues.  What is okay for me to say?  What's legit and what sounds like whining?  What problems can/should I bring to my boss and what should I handle on my own?  The answer to their questions begins with understanding the boss' paradox: your boss doesn't always know what you're doing, but they do usually know how well you do it.

Your boss has a lot to do, and most bosses (especially the ones that are effective as well as efficient) delegate the various tasks required to get the work done.  Sometimes a boss has more than one project to manage, so they have even more to delegate.  Many bosses unload the work and forget what they've given you.  They might remember some of the stuff, but likely they won't remember all the stuff they've given you to do/manage/take care of/chase.  There's a couple of reasons for this:  First, bosses (like human beings in general) are affected by what psychologists call recency effect, a phenomenon to describe how well humans remember the last thing they saw or the last thing that happened to them.  Because the ultimate outcome of your work on a project is the last thing the boss experiences with you, then that's what they tend to remember.  Let's say an intern's boss gives her a code study to do on a new bank.  She asks a lot of questions, some of them really good and insightful, and she even calls the local code official and gets a response, which she documents in a memo to her boss.  Sharp gal, right?  But when she presents the final code study to her boss, it's not thorough, and it's incomplete; it doesn't even account for exiting path widths.  The final product did not live up to the process, and the final product will be what the boss remembers for the next code study, or product research, or punchlist, or whatever.  Second, bosses (like human beings in general) learn through repetition.  If our hypothetical intern does her job the way she did the aforementioned code study over and over, the boss learns that she can do whatever you give her but you've got to stay on her and be extremely clear regarding expectations when it comes to the final product.  The boss learns the intern's pattern of performance; he learns how she does her job.

Because of the boss' paradox, you as an intern do have to speak up in certain instances because the boss doesn't know what all you have going on.  The best (and possibly most frequent) example of this is when you have a ton of stuff to do, and your boss walks over and hands you yet something else to do.  When that happens, it's incumbent upon you to speak up: "Ah, so when do you need this by, Mark?  I'm going through the redlines from Monday's meeting right now, and I still have the exterior plan details that I need to do."  Or more urgently: "By the end of the day?  Okay, well, now yesterday you asked me to get these three exam room layouts together by the end of today to send to the doctors--which of these really has to be done first?"  It is up to you to tell someone that you can't do both (or all three or all four) in the time you've been given.  Even if the boss snaps back some nonsense about "well everything has to be done now", hold firm but polite.  Not everything can be done at once; most people know that, and repeating someone's nonsense to them can help them come to their senses.

So what's okay to tell/complain to your boss about?  Here's a small list of the biggest things:
  • That you're underemployed: Tell someone if you don't have enough to do.  While it's okay to ask around to other bosses and let them know that you're available to help, your boss needs to be in the loop as well.
  • That you're overemployed: Tell your boss if you have way too much to do.  They can help you prioritize or take something off your plate and give it to someone who's underemployed.  
  • That you're interested in a wider range of tasks: Again, because bosses often forget what they've given you to do, it's good to mention it if you see something that another intern is working on and want to do something like that when the opportunity arises again.  Speaking up on this is especially important with regard to gettin gyour IDP hours.
  • That you need more direction or don't understand: Sometimes it can be intimidating to "bother" your boss and ask for clarification.  You don't want to bug him or her, and you don't want to be thought of us dumb.  Remember though that the repercussions are worse when you don't ask and mess something up.  Save everyone some time and ask for clarification.  The best way to ask questions is to save up several to ask all at once; it reduces interruptions.
  • That there's bad news or a reality check due: If you're not being given enough time to do what needs to be done, you've got to tell your boss.  If you find a detail or issue that could possibly be a big deal, bring it up. Sure, it might not be a big deal, but if it is a big deal and you never mentioned it, woe is you.  Also worth mentioning are the constraints or benefits of whatever software you're using to to the job.  For a long time, we used AutoCAD to do lots of schematic presentation images in my office.  However, an intern started using Adobe Illustrator to take a PDF from AutoCAD and color and doctor it up.  It was much more effective for making presentation-quality images that AutoCAD, but it meant that we had to do things a little differently.  This involved giving our boss a reality check when he wanted something in too little time.
Ultimately, anything you bring to your boss should be done in the service of the job.  Some of you may be too young to remember the movie Jerry Maguire.  One of the best lines in the movie is spoken by Tom Cruise as Maguire, in which he is trying to get his one remaining client to clean up his act in order to have a better career, one that Maguire can promote.  The line is "help me help you."  Whenever you approach your boss with a concern or question, do so in the spirit of moving the job forward.  Show or explain to them how the information you need affects the end result and makes them or the company look good.  Keep your boss in the loop on how the project is progressing and let them know whenever you need information or additional resources to get the job back on track, moving forward, or wrapped up.  

No comments:

Post a Comment