Rex Huppke's I Just Work Here: New year, new boss, same old fear
THE WORKPLACE IS a lot like football. I say that not because it's true, but because it's a handy way to justify the hours I spend watching football. Also, it allows me to write off nachos as a business expense.
But this week, the football-workplace simile is spot on. The day after the National Football League's regular season ended, seven head coaches were fired. So players on seven teams will be adjusting to new leaders, a situation that has become common in the nonfootball working world.
The recession has led to routine leadership shake-ups, and the odds of having the same boss or supervisor for a number of years have dropped precipitously.
When the Chicago Bears fired head coach Lovie Smith, several players spoke out. Devin Hester, a wide receiver and special teams ace, even threatened to retire rather than play for another coach.
But those of us who aren't paid millions of dollars for literally tackling the competition don't have the luxury of quitting when a new boss comes along, much less voicing disapproval. So how do we adapt?
George Bradt, co-author of "The New Leader's 100-Day Action Plan" and manager of PrimeGenesis, which helps new executives achieve results faster with less chance of failure, said the first step is to keep your attitude in check. Unless you absolutely despise your boss, the odds are you're going to fear a new one - we fear change, and the gut reaction to new management is, "Oh no, what kind of awful things will they do to us?"
"It's a major change, and each employee needs to hit a reset button," Bradt said. "If you think of changes in the workplace, some are major and some are minor, some are temporary and some are enduring. A new boss is a major change. Everything is new. Everything you did last season, last year, during the last planning session is useless."
Debra Benton, an executive coach and author of "The Virtual Executive," said workers often feel smug when a new boss starts, acting as though new managers need to prove themselves. That's a bad stance.
"Remember, you're in as much of a risky position as a new boss is," she said. "A new boss coming in wants to make changes, and changes can often mean getting rid of people. If you don't show energy, a driven attitude and discipline, you might be the first to go, even if you're very, very good."
As with most office relationships, the wisest among us will do some reconnaissance on the new boss: the basic "who, what, when, where, how and why" about the person leading you.
"You don't get it just from observation; you have to pursue it," Benton said. "Ask questions. What drove you to this company? What about the company attracted you? These are reasonable questions to get you started, but at the same time you should volunteer your 'who, what, when, why and how.' Don't hope or expect or wait for them to ask you these good questions. They have five or 50 of you that they have to learn, so you help them learn about you."
And that does not make you a suck-up - it means you are communicating in an honest, human manner.
There's nothing wrong with trying to get to know a new person in the office, whether it's someone above you, below you or on your same level. You don't have to walk up to a new boss and start singing his or her praises. Just act as you would around anyone you're trying to get to know.
Bradt said it's reasonable to huddle with a new manager and have a frank discussion about "control points."
"Everybody likes to manage things in a different way," he said. "What information is the boss going to want and in what format and frequency?"
Bradt also suggested finding out things such as: Does the new boss prefer face-to-face communication or emails; does the person want to have input in every decision or can you make some calls on your own; and how open is she or he to disagreements? Can you disagree with the boss in front of other people, or is it better to bring matters up one-on-one?
Benton recalled a client in Utah with a boss who wanted updates from employees written on yellow sticky notes and placed on his desk.
"If you came back from lunch and you wanted to tell him about your lunch with a customer, he wanted a yellow sticky note left on his desk," Benton said. "No one in the world would know that unless they asked. So you've got to ask questions and volunteer information."
Remember that a new person in charge is not patently evil. Nor is the new boss a guaranteed improvement. It's just a new person with new quirks and preferences.
Be yourself, ask sincere questions, learn a few details and adjust accordingly.
We're all human beings - it's never wrong to act like one.
And who knows, maybe the new boss will be a football fan. Then you, too, can find a good excuse to put nachos on your expense report.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @RexWorksHere.