Want to Be Happier at Work? Build A Better Relationship With Your Boss

Want more engaging work assignments? Think about how to improve your performance?  Wish you were happier at work? Improve your relationship with your boss to make your work life much better. 

The relationship with your boss usually is the most important one related to your job. In matrix organizations, expand this concept to “dotted line bosses.”  Numerous research studies, and perhaps your personal experience, come to the same conclusion. The quality of your relationship with your boss affects the type of assignments you receive, your performance, job satisfaction and organizational commitment. Given the importance of this relationship, there are three things you should know and three things you should do to make it better.

The quality of your relationship starts very early.

Research, including that conducted by Epitropaki and Martin ((2005) indicates that you and your boss form opinions of each other very early and those opinions remain stable. How early? Some research suggests that as early as five days after working together, you and your new boss already have an opinion about your ability to work with each other.  Why is this early impression resistant to change? One important factor is that both you and a boss are susceptible to confirmation bias, or the tendency to look for information that supports what you already believe and discard disconfirming information.

Your boss doesn’t have the same quality of relationship with everyone in your team/group.

Your boss forms a unique relationship with everyone who reports to him or her. Researchers label it leader- member exchange. What it means is that your manger will develop high quality relationships with some and lower quality relationship with others based upon several factors.  The differentiating aspects of each unique relationship means it’s harder to copy the style a peer uses with your boss and get the same results. Your peers find it just as hard to copy your style with your boss, too. You and your boss will form a unique, reciprocal relationship that will influence the type of assignments you receive, the amount of autonomy you enjoy, and the level of influence and support he or she extends on your behalf.

Your boss has different criteria for decisions

Often, we read into decisions made by the boss to infer hidden motivation or beliefs. For example, the fact that a boss did not lobby on someone’s behalf with her peers is interpreted that she isn’t willing to go to bat for her people.

Most people in a role of managing others try to take an expanded view of all decisions. But perhaps like you, she made the most obvious decision available at the time. Nobel laureate Herbert Simon describes the propensity for all of us to satisfice, or settle for the first acceptable solution. These solutions made sense, can be accommodated, and there did not seem to be a reason not to proceed.

Is satisficing the best way for your boss to make decisions? No. But in a world where decisions come at her like fast balls or soccer kicks several times a day, making the first “good enough” decision is rational to her. In fact, with honest reflection, there is reasonable likelihood that you can recall your own satisficing decisions.

Advice To Build a Better Relationship With Your Boss

Of course, your relationship with your boss is a two way street. Even if you got a lemon, there are things you can control. Even if you don’t think you can make the relationship better, you can make it worse. It’s too important- don’t do that.

Try these ideas to control what you can to form a better relationship with your boss.

Start Strong
The first month in your relationship with a new boss is the most important. You don’t have to like him or her, but it is far better if you can reasons to like them. At a minimum, be positive in your interactions; try out some of his or her ideas instead of dismissing them out of hand. Put your best effort into your first assignments. The lasting impression your boss has about you and your work is formed in your first month, or through your first series of interactions. Bring your “A” game.

Give Better than You Get
The relationship with your manager is an exchange. It’s reciprocal. Build equity through your best effort, attitude and work. You do not have to pretend to like someone you do not like, but you can develop a respectful, professional relationship. The relationship with your boss is one where you will get back what you put in.

Don’t Assume Intentions
The best outcomes for you and your peers are certainly among your boss’ considerations when weighing decisions. But you are not the only considerations. He or she must consider the goals and needs of the organization, business and role. Your boss must make the best, most expedient decision for all involved; even though it’s not the outcome you wanted. You do not need to like your boss’ decisions, but your relationship will be better if you appreciate their view.

You can’t control everything in the relationship with your boss. But by managing the aspects that are under your control- you may reap the benefits of richer assignments, greater autonomy and higher job satisfaction. A better relationship with your boss is worth your effort.


Epitropaki, O. and Martin, R. (2005). From Ideal to Real: A Longitudinal Study of the Role of Implicit leadership Theories on Leader- member Exchanges and Employee Outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 90 pp. 659-676

Manzoni, J.F. and Barsoux, J.L. (2002).  The Set Up to Fail Syndrome: How Good Managers Cause Great People to FailBoston: Harvard Business Sch

5 thoughts on “Want to Be Happier at Work? Build A Better Relationship With Your Boss

  1. I think a lot of folks make the mistake of going unnoticed. They wait for their boss to engage them on things. I think this is a big mistake. Make it point to talk to your boss on a regular basis. Stop by see if there is anything causing them stress that you can help with. Stay on their radar. It is a lot easier to gauge how you are doing when you have regular contact. Good post!

  2. Great post Susan. I’ve learned hard lessons here. Younger colleagues ask me for career advice…and I underscore the need to have a great relationship with your boss as critical success factor. Thanks for sharing this post. Dave

  3. Pingback: Can You Manage Your Manager? « Manage Better Now

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