Editor's note: Welcome to our new weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.
We've discussed the basics of business etiquette -- treating everyone as if they were
your boss -- so now it's time to dig in deeper. How do you treat your real boss?
Much has been written about managing Neanderthal or impossible bosses, the kind who move your cheese or don't get to yes, but comparatively little ink has been spilled on the question from an etiquette point of view.
Because etiquette applies universal rules within a culture -- but each corporate culture and each boss is unique -- broad rules about all bosses are problematic. What works within one company would be anathema in another.
From some points of view, the very concept of business etiquette is oxymoronic because it pits competition against cooperation. But that's why it's so much fun to figure out -- in the great game of business, it works as both strategy and tactic.
If we apply a few social rules to the issue of managing up, we see that business superiors mostly want to be treated like social superiors. That means no matter how little grace they might exhibit themselves, we must treat our bosses the way a merchant would treat a noble in days of yore, or the way a particularly well-bred child considers a sports superstar today -- like a god.
In sum, use Miss Conduct's Rule No. 3 from her rules of etiquette: If you can't keep 'em laughing (or kill a goat in sacrifice), then flatter.
One study reports that in doomed marriages, the ratio of positive to negative interactions is less than five to one -- and the best marriages have much higher ratios. Frighteningly, this means that even if you make sure you have positive interactions with someone three-quarters of the time, it might not be enough.
This was revealed by marriage expert and couple therapist John Gottman of the University of Washington, who likens positive interactions to money in the bank. When a conflict arises at some point -- as happens in all relationships -- the positive balance of good feeling in your account keeps you solvent.
So, in addition to doing a great job and getting your boss to notice it (which is a given to such an esteemed readership), joking around and making nice are the cement that keep your working relationship together in the absence of marriage's other benefits (the office is hardly the place for cuddling).
Even if you find channeling your inner toady constitutionally impossible, you can make your boss look good to others. Casually compliment his management in front of his own boss -- even if you just give credit for his astute assignment of a task to someone with unique abilities, especially if that person is you.
Like a good serf or a polite child, try to appease your god on his or her schedule, because timing is everything.
Ask for that "favor" of a day off to have your broken leg set when he has just finished complimenting or thanking you. (Until then, it can probably wait.) Allow the boss to defer all but the most time-critical discussions until His Holiness is ready to address them.
If you always have a smile and a salutatory prayer for your boss, he will be happy to see you. He may even find a reason to say hello when he needs a lift. Being a boss is harder than it looks, you know.
So be aware of his moods and energy levels. If you do have to approach with a question or a problem, try doing it when the boss is revving a little slower than usual. One good time is in the afternoon right after lunch, or following a particularly slow meeting. Find reasons to thank and compliment specific gestures of leadership, then listen with your full attention. That is, do not interrupt, yawn or look at your watch.
Masters of business relationships keep notes on their best customers, so you should do the same with your bosses.
It's a form of taking interest in them, which is, in effect, in your own best interest. Great waiters know their regulars' favorite dishes and wines, so in conversation, take note of your boss's favorite dishes and whines. Chat with him about his hobbies -- even if it's about a sports team you despise. Learn to like it, or if you're a Red Sox fan, at least be entertaining about your lack of respect for the Yankees. Share his pet peeve, if possible, and definitely adopt his favorite sense metaphors when explaining something to him.
As some firms say, it's not the product, it's the relationship. So no matter how well you do your job, you might not keep it unless you perform at least as well at managing your emotional intelligence in the workplace. Remember, employees who pray to the boss-god together, stay together.
Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at
AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.