One of the areas in which we frequently see executives performing below their potential is in communications, particularly with their direct line supervisor. Being able to effectively communicate upward – to “synchronize” with one’s leader – is important from an entry-level position all the way up to the CEO seat (which then demands synchronization with the full board, and is a lot tougher to manage than the one-to-one relationship with a direct supervisor). We see “syncing issues” take a number of forms:
The “Me-First” Problem
Often, when an executive is presented with a big piece of news from the boss, his or her first reaction is: “What does this mean for me?” This response can blind the executive to the real value in the interaction. Instead of viewing the information from the supervisor within the context of the broader organization, she/he may be narrowing the aperture far too much. This me-first lens can cause a person to neglect to focus on fixing the problem or working toward a higher performance target – which is what the leader is most likely looking for.
A Clash of Styles
Communications breakdowns don’t just happen during these kinds of “big” conversations – we often see examples of lack of synchronization happening in day-to-day communications. We worked with one leader who liked short, in-person interactions, while one of his direct reports preferred email. Instead of adjusting, the direct report kept using email – which created unnecessary conflict with the boss. Style matters, and his lack of “sync” with his supervisor’s caused aggravation. These two were speaking a different language – and the leader is the one to determine what that language will be.
But as much as leaders may set the tone for the interaction, they are highly dependent on their direct reports’ reliably bringing them the right content and support they need to perform effectively. They count on their team to be forthcoming with information. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always happen: researchers using the Cornell National Social Survey found that employees aren’t speaking up enough when they have knowledge and ideas that could help both head off organizational malfunctions and drive performance. In this research, 42% of respondents said they withheld providing ideas or information to their managers on certain occasions because they thought it would be “a waste of time to speak up.” This kind of reactive-mode not only hides information, but also hides possible solutions and valuable fixes that an organization may truly need.
Whether you’re a C-suite officer reporting into the CEO or mid-level executive working with a division VP, failing to “sync” with your leader has consequences for both your personal reputation and the organization’s larger goals. How can you ensure that you are in sync and not letting a communication gap sabotage your performance?
3 Ways to Operate in Sync with Your Boss
1. Understand their upward deliverables.
2. Embrace your leader’s idiosyncrasies.
3. Be proactive versus reactive.
Ultimately, synchronizing is about agility and adaptability, and you want to be perceived as someone with these characteristics. You will need to do this many times through your career, as each person you report to is different. With each new supervisor, you need to learn how to do the diagnostic – and then adapt quickly.