MAN A G
The Boss is
Just a Boss
Your boss calls you and asks you to come to his office. He wants to speak with you. Alarm bells go
off: Uh Oh! What now—is there a problem? Did I do something wrong? What does he want from me?
Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D.
You know that your boss is a reasonable guy and you generally like him.
Mostly, you’ve gotten along well, respected his decisions, and believed that
he was generally approving and respectful toward you. So why does he want you
to come to his office?
You feel your stomach tighten and
tension spreads through your body. You
tell yourself, “It’s probably nothing” yet
you feel mildly stressed. After all, he is
It’s a typical reaction: when the boss
calls, we sweat.
Research makes it very clear that
workers are more watchful and aware of
their supervisors than they are of their
coworkers. They listen to their supervisors more attentively and are always
seeking clues as to how they are perceived by them.
To understand what’s going on here,
we need to understand some very fundamental realities of the human condition.
As newborns, we are about the
most helpless of all animals. We are
totally dependent for nutrition, and for
life itself, on adults. Fortunately, those
adults—usually our parents—are loving
and attentive to our needs. But if they
ignore us, we suffer. So we watch them
closely and count on them to nurture us.
Another homo sapiens species-specific factor is also at work. We have
large, convoluted brains, and we are very
sensitive to our environments. As a result, even as babies, we have some primitive sense of our dependency. As long
as our parents, are kind and attentive,
everything is fine. But if they ignore us,
or even worse, somehow punish us, it
registers as an end-of-the-world scenario.
Many psychologists believe that
we retain, deep in our unconscious
minds, some shadowy sense of that early
condition so that when we interact
with parents or parental figures—like
our bosses—we again feel some sense of
insecurity and dependency. Those feelings manifest as anxiety and a general
So, when your superior, who is prob-
ably a perfectly decent, normal human
being, asks you to “Please step into my
office,” something happens. We don’t
simply accept such an invitation as an
interaction between one normal adult
and another. A very real but hidden part
of us regresses to an infantile level.
with your ideas about how to resolve
it. You don’t want him to be caught
with his pants down, by his boss, when
projects in your department go south.
That would be a recipe for serious bad
news. So, while you must keep him informed—even about the bad stuff—you
also need to help him see how the situation can be turned around.
You should also keep the boss
informed about the good things that
are happening. That will give him the
chance to look good in front of his boss
and keep him aware of your value.
But whether you have good news
or bad news, the importance of having
clear, strong communication between
you and your boss cannot be overstated.
Ideally you would meet on a regular basis, e.g., every Monday afternoon. That
would be your chance to let him know
how things are going and to tell him
about any special problems that may exist. It would also give you the chance to
get feedback on your performance.
If regular meetings are not your
modus operandi, be sure to stay in touch
with e-mail or even brief, written notes.
However you do it, know that keeping
a clear line of communication between
you and your boss is a crucial aspect of
your job—and your career.
Besides his clinical work and university
teaching, Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D.,
provides consulting to organizations on
management issues and on managing
When you present an idea to your
manager, you have to consider several
things about your communication. For
example, you should know how much
detail he really wants. Some supervisors
will want every last detail of your plan
nailed down; others will only want a
It’s also important to be aware of
your boss’s priorities. He has limitations
on his time, and, if you want to present
some ideas to him, be prepared—well
prepared. Wasting his time with poorly
conceptualized plans will definitely not
be welcome—and will make it harder for
you to get his attention in the future.
You also have to consider how much
you want to share with him about on-the-job problems you face. As a general
rule, there should be no surprises. When
things go wrong, let him know about
the problem as soon as possible, along