The Decreasing Importance of Your Supervisor


In the past, an employee’s relationship with their direct supervisor was found to be one of the most influential factors on whether or not the employee enjoyed their job.  However, this dynamic has begun to change. The importance of an employee’s relationship with their supervisor seems to be decreasing.  In recent years, relationships with colleagues have become increasingly influential in employees’ daily work life.

Research over the past few years has increasingly shown the importance of collegial relationships for success at work and also for enjoying one’s job.  Part of this trend has to do with the younger generational of workers highly valuing collegial relationships (as demonstrated by their desire to work together on tasks more than Gen X or Boomers do).  Another aspect is that, in many settings, there is a greater amount of cross-departmental collaboration that creates more than one reporting relationship. For example, a team member in customer service may work with a colleague in publications to give input on ways to build better relationships with the agency’s existing clientele, with the publication supervisor overseeing the project.

A third factor that may reduce the importance of the relationship with one’s direct supervisor / boss is the myriad of ways both leaders and employees are assessed in today’s workplaces, including 360 degree feedbacks and other objective measures of work. Jared Lindzon, in an article about change and work, spoke to analyst Josh Bersin who says, “Most companies, even big companies, are much less hierarchal and much less top-down in their execution than they used to be. Leaders are finding that they have to be more inspirational, they have to be more collaborative.”  This movement away from top-down management is happening some in government agencies, but at a slow pace.

The practical result is that each of us need to learn and apply ways of relating to both our colleagues and our supervisors that will lead to positive interactions when working together.  Here are a few thoughts to consider:

  1. Be appreciative. Most employees (including supervisors and managers) don’t hear much thanks and hear a lot of complaining.  Occasionally thanking someone (being specific about “for what”) can go a long way to start to build a positive relationship.
  2. Be respectful.  One of the most common complaints I hear from supervisors (especially in cross-generational relationships) is that they feel disrespected.  Most of us aren’t sure what makes us feel respected but we clearly know when we feel disrespected.  Having a general conversation with your co-workers about actions that lead them to feel respected (or disrespected) would be wise.
  3. If you are going to raise a concern, make sure it is specific (versus being vague and general). And that it is a behavior / issue your boss or co-worker can actually address. Don’t whine about “management” or a colleague in another department, where your supervisor or colleague has no influence.
  4. Do your job well (and be willing to do “above and beyond”). Remember, you are there to accomplish tasks and do them well. When you perform quality work and, at least occasionally, do more than is required, you make your supervisor look good to his/her colleagues and their
  5. Intentionally work on building healthy relationships with your colleagues. You obviously don’t want to ignore your relationship with your supervisor, but it would be wise to invest time and energy in getting to know those with whom you work consistently.

Remember: The goal of building a positive relationship with your boss isn’t try to “suck up” to them and win undue favoritism. Neither should you try to create a fake, “pollyannish” relationship with your colleagues.  Overall, the purpose is to develop healthy, positive relationships of mutual respect – which will lead to better communication, the ability to work through disagreements, and building a partnership where you can support one another through difficult times.  A nice side benefit is that getting along with your co-workers will lead you to enjoy your daily work life more.

Dr. Paul White is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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