We all want to be valued — and be viewed as valuable — at work. But respect isn’t a given; you have to earn it. Whether you have a new manager or have worked with your current boss for years, what can you do to make sure your boss appreciates what you bring to the job? What’s the best way to build trust? And how do you ask for respect if you don’t feel like you’re given it?
What the Experts Say
A recent HBR study of nearly 20,000 employees around the world found that the most important thing that workers want from their managers is respect. “If you don’t feel respected, you won’t be engaged in your work,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and the coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Respect from your boss has many layers, according to Michael Watkins, chairman of Genesis Advisers and a professor at IMD. It begins with being seen as “someone worth keeping and someone [your boss] wants to have as part of his team.” It progresses to being viewed as an employee deserving of “interesting and challenging assignments,” and finally as an employee that your manager, “wants to invest in and develop because he thinks you have a bright future.” Wanting respect is one thing; getting it is another. Here are some strategies.
Clarify your responsibilities
The first step in earning your manager’s respect is, of course, doing your job and doing it reliably well. To accomplish this, you must, “be really clear on your most critical” assignments and “how they fit in to the agenda of your boss,” says Watkins. In the early days of a new job, he suggests asking your manager, “What do I need to learn and how can I most quickly learn it?” Then, you must do everything in your power to “demonstrate that you’re getting up to speed quickly,” he says. “Being seen as a fast learner can be a big driver of credibility.” Even if you’ve been at your job a while, it’s wise to clarify your role and responsibilities on a regular basis, says Hill. “You want to be aligned with your boss, so you know where to focus your time and attention,” she says.
Becoming a valued and trusted employee requires that you “figure out the best way to communicate with your boss,” says Watkins. “It’s incumbent on you to adjust your style to his.” Ask your manager how he prefers to communicate. Does he like email, texts, or face-to-face conversations? How often does he want to hear from you? Once a week? Once a day? Or only when needed? Ask him how much detail he desires. Does he prefer you to lead with analysis or your judgment? If there is a mismatch between how you and your boss like to work — you check email every hour; her inbox goes unread for days — you need to initiate a “candid conversation where each side explains the reason for his behavior,” says Hill. “Help your boss understand your perspective and the trade-offs involved,” as they relate to your ability to be productive. “Discuss the situation and then make a decision about how to proceed,” she says.
Observe and empathize
To earn your boss’s respect, “you have to understand what matters to him,” says Hill. She recommends paying close attention to your “boss’s priorities and the pressures” he’s under. Those are now your priorities — you’re not being obsequious, you’re empathizing. Bear in mind, too, that “your boss is looking for evidence that you are trustworthy — that he can trust your character and intentions and your competence,” says Hill. Figure out how to gain his trust “and create the conditions for your success” by careful observation. Deepen your grasp of the organization’s “priorities, constraints, and politics” by learning who the boss trusts, who the boss listens to, and where tensions lie. Your goal is not to play politics, but “it’s important to understand the politics.”
Build relationships with others
Earning your boss’s respect is part and parcel of earning the esteem of your colleagues. “Your boss is making assessments through direct observation and also through other people [via] feedback,” says Watkins. Your boss is paying keen attention to how you “fit in with the team” and the extent to which you “build relationships.” Watkins advises “reaching out to other people” by offering support. “The most useful question you can ask is “How can I help?” Doing so “creates a virtuous cycle,” he says. It’s also worth asking others for their insights and advice on how best to forge a relationship with your boss, according to Hill. “Find out what works and what doesn’t,” she says.
Disagree (politely and in private)
“Avoiding conflict with your boss is not a way to gain respect,” says Hill. “The boss needs to know you have her back,” but the boss also needs to know when “the Emperor may not be wearing any clothes.” If, for instance, you believe that your team cannot hit the timeline your boss proposes for a project, tell her that — in private and in a courteous way. Do not spring this news on your boss in public, which could be construed as being disloyal. Hill advises thinking about your relationship as a partnership. “If you’re my partner, you’re going to help me keep from making a mistake.” After all, “you have access to different information than your manager does,” which makes your opinion and perspective valuable. “You need to be courageous enough to bring it up to the boss when you disagree.”
Ask for feedback
No matter how star-studded your job performance, you cannot force your boss to recognize your achievements. Some bosses just aren’t inclined to do that, according to Watkins. “You will receive exactly the recognition that the level of your performance, and your boss’s propensity to recognize performance, yields,” he says. That said, even if your boss tends toward reticence, there is a difference between “public recognition of your accomplishments” and “honest and real feedback on how you’re performing.” You must ask your boss, “How am I doing? What could I be doing more or less of?” Watkins says that new hires in particular “tend to get less early feedback because there is a reluctance” to offer criticism as someone is just finding her feet. “As a result, people can get off on the wrong track quickly.”
“It doesn’t feel good when we think someone is being disrespectful,” says Hill. “If you feel like you are being discriminated against and your boss is not respecting you for who you are,” that’s a problem for HR. But don’t jump to conclusions, she says. It could be that your boss is challenging and questioning you not because he doesn’t respect you, but “because he does not fully understand the issues you’re dealing with.” In this case, she says, the onus is on you to “educate your boss” and “give him the lay of the land” concerning the parameters of your job and the difficulties you’re encountering. “Your boss is not a mind reader. You share a responsibility for making the relationship work.” Watkins concurs. “You don’t want to get to the point where you’re slamming your fist on the table and saying, ‘I demand respect.’” But if you don’t feel like you’re getting it, you have to ask yourself why, he says. “Ask yourself: Am I not performing at an adequate level? Am I sucking up? Am I not setting appropriate boundaries? It starts with you.”
Principles to Remember
- Adjust your communication and work style to your boss’s.
- Reach out to your colleagues by offering support. The most useful question you can ask is “How can I help?”
- Forge a partnership with your boss. You share a responsibility for making the relationship work.
- Be dismayed if your boss doesn’t publicly recognize your achievements. Instead, ask for feedback with questions like, What could I be doing more or less of?
- Fail to get to know the politics and culture of your organization; find out who the boss trusts, who the boss listens to, and where tensions lie.
- Avoid conflict with your boss. If you disagree, speak up — in private and politely.
- Case Study #1: Understand your boss’s priorities and adapt to her preferred communication style
- When Whitney McCarthy started her job as communications manager at Rizepoint, the compliance management software company based in Salt Lake City, she was intent on doing good work and earning the respect of her manager, “Lucy.”
Whitney’s first priority was to get a clear understanding of what her precise responsibilities were. On her first day on the job, Lucy left Whitney a long note with bullet points that explained the six main focus areas of her job and the immediate action items she needed to take on. “That note has been a guiding document for my work and is something I update monthly [with Lucy’s guidance]– in the same six “bucket” format,” says Whitney.
Lucy also held a face-to-face meeting with Whitney and the rest of the team. “The objective was to discuss what areas we each owned to eliminate confusion on budget or deliverables,” she says.
Whitney’s second priority was to get up-to-speed quickly on her focus areas — which included PR, an area where she had very little experience. Whitney had a lot to learn, and she wanted to be seen as a fast learner. She signed up for PR newsletters, downloaded white papers, and researched the PR strategies of other software companies.
“My goal was not to burden Lucy with a million questions,” she says. “I demonstrated my new knowledge by completing a press release within the first few weeks on the job and presenting an entire PR plan to our CEO within my first month.”
Next on Whitney’s agenda was figuring out how to best to work with Lucy. She asked Lucy about her preferred communication style and where she wanted input. Then Whitney did her best to adapt. “On things Lucy doesn’t want to be looped in on (e.g. social posts), I make sure to include a weekly update of performance so she has a general idea of my strategy and results even though I do not loop her in on day-to-day details,” she says.
In addition to asking Lucy directly about her preferred communication style, Whitney also asked her coworkers for their tips since they had worked with her manager for year. “They had helpful tips like, if you come to her with a problem, come prepared with your recommended solution as well.”
Whitney is confident she’s earned Lucy’s respect. Lucy has sent her three thank you emails about how much she enjoys working with her; Whitney has earned full bonuses (at Lucy’s discretion), and she was awarded the company’s quarterly MVP award during her first three months on the job.
Case Study #2: Show your boss you have her back and be receptive to feedback
Karen Schneider, a project manager in the wine and spirits industry, says that to gain the respect of her boss, she always looks for ways to be helpful. “It is my job to make my manager’s life easier, of course, by doing my job well and also by alleviating pressure when I am able to.”
In a previous job, Karen’s boss, “Susan,” held weekly, one-on-one meetings with her direct reports. Karen always asked if there was anything on Susan’s plate that she could help with so that Susan knew she had her back. Quite often the answer was yes. “And even if there wasn’t, I know the request and desire to help was appreciated,” she says. “Susan knew she could count on me, and that I was hungry to learn more.”
Karen also proactively sought feedback from Susan. “In the first two to three weeks on the job, I asked at the end of the week for any key feedback or takeaways, and as time passed, I asked once a month,” she says. “Because I am invested in my own success, I felt Susan recognized my drive and respected me more for it.”
Susan once offered her constructive feedback on how she could have managed a project differently. “It was not unkind or overly critical, but it allowed me to see potential for how to better handle things in the future,” she says.
Karen was receptive to the feedback and made sure to incorporate it in her next project. “It is important to accept criticism just as graciously and as open-minded as you would praise, which is why I believe I’ve earned Susan’s respect.”
Karen says that Susan often thanks her personally for her work on certain projects, and once even gave her a gift for a job particularly well done. “It wasn’t necessarily shouted from the rooftops to my other coworkers, but the personal touch and show of appreciation really did mean a lot,” she says.