Let's Get Things Started

By Lynn Friedman, PhD.
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 1, 2005; 6:00 PM

You've landed that dream position. You're happy with the salary, the hours and the benefits, too. So, how do you start off on the right foot? A first step is figuring out what is expected of you. Some things you can take for granted. You're expected to make a nice impression, to be gracious, to make a nice appearance, to arrive on time, to work hard while you are in the office -- and, to work over-time during crunch periods. You're expected to be professional and to get along with everyone at work. You are expected to not become involved in petty or personal conflicts. Often these things aren't spoken, they are just presumed. But, they are vitally important. They are the "stuff" of which promotions and firings are made. While you are considering all of the boss's expectations of you, it's important to consider what you expect from the boss and from the job. Many people don't appreciate that letting the boss know your own goals and aspirations is vitally important to your success, too.

What the boss expects from you:

Anxiety about laws that protect employee rights and interpersonal awkwardness may prevent your boss from telling you how to dress or how to act, especially if you are of the opposite sex. But, make no mistake your dress, your demeanor and your attitude count. You may eschew dress codes, but, if you are in any profession in which you have contact with other people, ask yourself whether your need for personal expression in the workplace is greater than your need to inspire your bosses trust and confidence. Ask yourself if it's worth sacrificing a promotion. Ideally, it's a good idea to dress as if you were in your boss's position. After all, isn't that where you want to be in the long-run?

You're well coiffed and well-dressed, now how do you clarify what's expected of you? Review the mission of the company. Corroborate what you find on paper with what you hear through the grapevine. Quietly observe what's going on around you. Identify who is succeeding and who isn't. Attempt to identify the critical ingredients of success and of failure. Most employees succeed when they help the company to succeed. But, a necessary prerequisite to that is helping your boss succeed. Your relationship with your boss is critical. In fact if you have a difficult boss, others will be impressed if you handle him skillfully.

So, how do you determine what your boss wants? In a perfect world, your boss tells you. Most boss's want to see you succeed, to do well, to look good, and, to make them look good. But, not all bosses know how to accomplish that. Most bosses were promoted because of their technical competency NOT because of their skill in employee management. So, it's your job to discover what's expected of you. Observe what others in comparable positions are doing. Identify ways that you can help. Try to identify the boss's goals and figure out how you might contribute to his success. Ask your boss what the performance of a "perfect" employee would look like. Ask for as many concrete, details as possible. If you don't have a job description, ask your boss if you can draft one. If you are lucky, your boss will tell you how you can be effective.

However, not every boss knows what he wants. If your boss is uncertain or unclear, try to figure out why. It could be because his boss is always switching gears. With the sands always shifting, the boss may be legitimately befuddled. Or, he may not a skilled supervisor. Or, he may be too busy or scattered to consider you or your needs. In any case, identify ways in which you think that you can be helpful and ask the boss for the green light. If she's unavailable, try to determine how you might be helpful and keep her apprised of your activities in the least intrusive way possible, perhaps by sending a weekly e-mail summarizing them.

Clarifying your own expectations with the boss:

The boss isn't the only one who needs to be comfortable and he's not the only one with expectations, either. You need to be comfortable, too. It's reasonable for you to expect to be treated with respect, common courtesy and professionalism. This includes having clarity as to your work hours, especially if the work expectations are unclear. While it's important to focus and to work hard, it's also important to establish some realistic and appropriate limits as to your work hours, your availability on short notice and the sorts of things that you will and won't do.

A common lament of many workers is that the boss expects unrealistic over-time without adequate compensation or professional recognition. If you work in a field with a busy season it's important to be more available during that time. However, in general it's critical that you set firm, but generous, limits as to what you will or won't do. If you fail to do this, you will end up feeling (and, perhaps being) mistreated and resentful.

For example, if your boss leaves everything until the last minute and then asks you to cancel your plans, do it once if you can. But, make it clear that you won't be able to do it in the future. The key here is to calmly explain, after the crisis has past, that you were glad you were able to cancel your plans and help out, however, you are generally unable to do that. If the boss asks you, "why", tell him, "I'm sure you can appreciate, I have commitments outside of work. I know that you can respect that my personal life is a private matter." The Post's columnist, Miss Manners has a number of columns explaining how to make it clear that a personal matter is not open for discussion -- while using -- and, this is of the utmost importance -- impeccable manners. Although this is not easy to do and, it becomes easier with practice. When you realize that the excess over-time is not being dumped on you, it gets even easier. In the short-run, the boss will be disconcerted. However, if you work very hard when at the office, he'll respect your assertiveness. This may lead to a more open working relationship in which you both are able to talk about each of your goals and aspirations. You can each talk about what you need from each other in order to achieve each of your professional goals while supporting the companies mission.

Lynn Friedman, PhD, is a clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst and work-life consultant in full-time, private practice near the Bethesda Metro. She can be reached at drlynn@mindspring.com. More of her work be found at http://www.drlynnfriedman.com/.

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