News & Insight
May 2014

What Your Boss Really Wants From You

As an executive coach, I have worked with hundreds of people in all types of organizations. Each person has their own story, of course – a unique narrative that includes their skills, experience, strengths, weaknesses, and relationships. While every engagement is different, these people all have one thing in common; their boss always plays a central role in the story. That’s why my first coaching question is “what does your boss really want from you?

Now, some of my clients have great bosses, so they discuss the relationship briefly and move on. However, a lot of clients don’t work for a great boss. They’re not clear about her views, or don’t understand what she really wants… and all of this is impacting their performance, engagement, and happiness. I was seeing this dynamic so often in my work that I decided to write What Your Boss Really Wants From You (Berrett-Koehler, 2014).

The Unexpected Solution

I have found that a lot of bosses harbor unknown expectations - those hidden motives that drive the boss’s behavior. If you don’t understand what the boss wants from you, you’ll likely be worried, frustrated, and disengaged; you certainly won’t be delivering your best work.

There is no easy solution to this problem. The first thing my clients want to know is: “how do I change my boss?” I tell them to forget about changing your boss. The hard truth is that all of your efforts to improve, fix, or convert your boss won’t work. The solution is changing your own approach to interacting with the boss. The transformation has to be one you undergo… in your awareness, attitude, and behaviors.

The Power of Insight

I believe the secret ingredient to improving your boss relationship is insight. Insight allows you to understand what makes your boss tick – his underlying motives. To help you recognize his motives, I have developed 10 questions that will give you the insight you need to figure out where your boss is coming from. I call this first step in the process “study your boss”. The resulting insights will help you explain his work style, behaviors and motives.

Next, you must look objectively at the relationship from the boss’s vantage point. I call this step “consider the boss’s perspective”. In this step, I’ve created five questions for you to answer. Finally, you have to turn all of this insight into self-awareness and behavior change. In short, you have to take responsibility for the relationship. If the first two steps are about gaining awareness, this step is about turning those insights into action. You have to adjust your attitude, commit to modifying your boss story, and adopt new behaviors designed to improve your relationship with the boss.

Your Most Important Work Relationship

Your relationship with your boss matters – a lot. It’s the most critical factor in your engagement and enjoyment of the job. If you have a great boss, he’s motivating you to work hard, develop your skills, and thrive in the role. However, if you have a bad boss, he’s likely the cause of your frustration, disengagement and stress, and he probably isn’t getting the best out of you.

I believe you need to be the catalyst for improving this relationship. You don’t have to be a victim – you can proactively change your attitude and behaviors. Start by studying your boss to really understand his motives. Next, take an honest look at how he sees you, and be prepared to incorporate that perspective into your plans for change. Then, armed with these reflections, rewrite your story and adjust your attitude. Try new behaviors, and stop destructive ones. It’s up to you to figure out what your boss really wants from you, put in the work, and take ownership of the relationship.

Steve Arneson is a top executive coach and much sought after leadership speaker. His follow-up to the best-selling Bootstrap Leadership is What Your Boss Really Wants From You. Both books are available at Amazon and Barnes &

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