How to Screw Up Your Career in 5 Easy Steps: In [Insert Boss’ Name] We Trust

This post is the 4th of 5 in a series on mistakes and lessons learned from my own career mishaps. To view the rest, select “Career Advice” on the drop-down menu in the right hand navigation bar.

As a social software designer who has sold companies on the idea of launching enterprise collaboration tools for half a decade, it must seem like blasphemy when I imply that your boss can’t be trusted. After all, isn’t that premise antithetical to everything I’ve preached? That social software builds trust amongst teams? That connecting with your boss online is a surefire way to stay in his or her sights come promotion time?

Don’t panic. I wasn’t lying. I’m still as confident as ever that social technology can and does promote bonds, trust, and connectivity throughout the hierarchy. Until it’s broken, a trusting relationship between manager and employee is the cornerstone of productivity and engagement.

The problem that I see employees running into, however, is trusting their boss and their boss alone. You’ve heard the saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket?” Unfortunately, employees so often put all of their eggs in the boss-basket without realizing that it may cost them their job.

Mistake #4: Failing to Establish Several High Level Allies

It’s challenging for a new, young employee to come into an organization and build his or her own social structure. It takes months to understand the culture, hierarchy, and what greases the wheels of the corporate machine. An employee’s boss is the shepherd that guides the way, and for some time, new employees are somewhat at their mercy. Even for seasoned employees who rise the ranks or transfer into a senior level job, their supervisor has the clout to shape the company’s perception of the newbie. Therefore, it’s in an employee’s best interest to stay closely aligned with his or her manager. But trust shouldn’t fade into dependency – if your only ally at the top is your boss, what happens when circumstances change? Here are three key points to consider if you’ve found yourself with just your boss – and no other senior leaders – as your conduit to the rest of the organization.

  • Managers are busy people. Even with the best of intentions, they may forget a promise, a deadline, or an answer they provided to a client on a call six weeks ago. It’s not because they are flighty – it’s because they are consumed with their work and your work. I’m as guilty of this as any manager. Employees should recognize that their managers are doing their best but cannot be all things to all people. If you’re only relying on your manager for high level help, you’re walking on thin ice with your customers and your company.
  • Managers evolve and change. Managers are people as well as employees, and as their personal and professional circumstances change, so do their management styles. When quotas are increased, or productivity targets are raised, managers of those teams have to morph their styles and relationships with employees to extract stronger performance. As much as we don’t want to believe it, we are all still just one small puzzle piece inside our companies, and as market conditions change and stock prices fluctuate, our managers see us in different lights. If it’s just your manager who knows your role and impact as business pressures change, you’re setting yourself up for being misunderstood and overlooked.
  • Managers are your boss first and your friend second. This is a tough one, especially if you’re working at a small company with a friendly culture. You may begin to think that your rapport with your boss is reflective of your working relationship, but you must remember that team drinks, parties and BBQs are NOT the foundation of your relationship with your boss; despite the fun, your manager is really more concerned with your performance. Once a personal rapport has been developed, you may begin to let your guard down at work, resulting in a change in how you’re perceived by the other person in the boss-employee hierarchy. If your boss is your only leadership ally, your reputation is now solely in the hands of someone who knows both your Jekyll and Hyde sides.

The solution for this dilemma is to build up your list of leadership allies so that your fate is not dictated by just one decision maker. Once you have built a relationship with several people more senior than you, and even a few more senior than your boss, your have a web of protection when it comes time for layoffs and a web of support when promotions roll around. Ultimately, you want your accomplishments known throughout the organization, and you want to be helpful to senior leaders other than your boss. To find these leadership allies, I highly recommend finding a mentor inside the company who can guide you and make introductions that are not connected to your boss. Use your enterprise social network to meet interesting leaders who share common interests. Strike up conversations at the water cooler or after meetings. Do whatever it takes to develop a full network of trust around you to both protect and evangelize your job. Ultimately, with solid work performance and ties to various levels, teams and departments, you’ll be seen as indispensable by the company, and your boss won’t hold the only keys to your career.

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