“How do I manage my boss?”

Prague Leaders Magazine, November 2006

When I arrived in the Czech Republic eleven years ago, the question I most often heard was, “How do I manage the Czechs?” For many years afterward, this issue remained one of the most pressing challenges for expatriate managers. Lately however, a shift seems to have taken place and the question I now most often hear is “How do I manage my boss?”

A very good example of this new phenomenon was brought to my attention by Pavlina, one of my MBA students who also works for an international company. Pavlina recently had a new French manager join her company to help manage its Czech subsidiary. During one of the classes I teach at the Masaryk Institute of Advanced Studies, Pavlina asked me for some advice on how best to improve her relationship with her new French manager. The challenge she faced was on two fronts: Firstly, she has great difficulties simply relating to her new boss on a cultural level. She summarized her second challenge by simply asking “How can we communicate with him? He is listening to the wrong people”.

When a foreign manager arrives in the Czech Republic eager to tackle a new professional challenge or experience a new culture, he or she is often unaware of the difficulties that both the Czech language and the local mentality can present. This is often caused by a difference in the expectations of a foreigner coming to work in the Czech Republic and the people he or she is supposed to work with.

A local team often expects several things from a new foreign manager. Firstly, team members expect the manager to adapt to the Czech environment and to the people working in it. They also expect him to provide a response to the perpetually unanswered question of “Why should we believe in and follow you?”

On the other hand, the new boss expects his new team to respect his authority, to support him in his new tasks, to agree with him and to adjust accordingly to his communication and management style.

In the Czech Republic, this gap in expectations can become even more pronounced as Czechs would often like an expatriate manager to make an effort to learn about their country, culture and history while, most importantly, listening to their opinions.

Having explained all the potential challenges of her new situation, I told Pavlina that if she wanted her French boss to see things from her Czech perspective, she might be disappointed. On the other hand, if she made an effort to meet him half way and tried to understand him and adjust to his style, she would definitely attract his attention and get him to listen to her ideas.

Regardless of who we are or who we work with, the cornerstone of any successful professional communication is a good relationship. The best way of establishing a good relationship with one’s own manager is to create and develop strong rapport with him, to learn to like him and even to praise him.

Rapport is defined as the ability to relate to others in a way that creates a climate of trust and understanding. It is the capacity to understand each other’s point of view (without necessarily agreeing with it) and to appreciate each other’s feelings. It is also a key element to positive communication.

Creating a good rapport with anyone is easy if you simply remember that people like people who are like themselves. We naturally develop a good rapport with people who are similar to us and/or think in the same way we do. We feel most comfortable with people who behave like us, share the same interests or have similar ideas or life experiences.

On the contrary, it’s often a challenge to establish a rapport with someone who doesn’t appear to have much in common with us. Like a new manager for example.

I told Pavlina that one easy way to develop rapport with her French boss was to start “matching” him. I suggested she make an effort to adopt parts of his behavior, such as gestures, facial expressions, forms of speech, tone of voice, etc. Though this may first appear to be a very dangerous proposition, if it is done very subtly then this feeling of rapport can be established.

When Pavlina mentioned that her new boss wore smart, fashionable clothing, I suggested that she also pay special attention to her own appearance. While every culture has its own particular dress code, for many cultures, including the French, being a professional means dressing the part and choosing the formal over the casual.

Rapport is a form of influence. The quality of the rapport we share with others will therefore influence the way we communicate with that person.

Another important aspect of any relationship is the expression of fondness for the other person. Because Czechs place a high value on sincerity, it can be very difficult for them to like their boss if they don’t. Nationality, language or cultural differences aside, it is true that we all like to be liked and have a better relationship with people we like than with those we don’t.

For Pavlina, one easy way of getting her new boss to take a liking to her was to take an active part at meetings. For the French, active participation during a meeting is quite common and even expected. French are known to voice their opinions and ideas without being asked and can often interrupt each other. This behavior is much different from how Czechs behave at meeting. They will usually wait to be asked for their ideas and opinions and will never interrupt someone who is speaking for fear of being perceived as rude.

For Pavlina, who is a naturally reserved person, this change in behavior required her to leave her comfort zone. The aim of this exercise was not to change her personality to better suit that of her boss, but to be able to adjust her communication style according to a given situation.

Another suggestion was to look for common interests, as it is possible to find something in common with everyone: hobbies, sport, family situations, beliefs, etc. It might take a bit of creative effort, but discovering where interests and passions overlap always brings people closer together.

Finally, the most powerful tool in establishing a good relationship with a manager is to praise him. Praise makes us feel good and increases our self-confidence. Moreover, praise or positive reinforcement is proven to be the most effective means of influencing behavior. And it works with bosses and employees alike.

“Praise my boss! But how?”asked Pavlina. I told Pavlina to smile when the boss says something interesting or funny and to nod when she agreed with him. I also told her to answer her boss’s questions in a positive manner and avoid responding to statements in the negative.

Praising the boss can be quite a challenge for anybody. For those of us who can’t even imagine the idea of commending a manager, it might help to simply focus on what he or she does well and ignore the rest. In any case, everyone reacts positively to praise provided it is appropriate and subtle.

Understandably, working for a foreign boss can be uncomfortable for many Czechs. But luckily for Pavlina, the Czechs and the French both value the personal touch over the professional and are more inclined to trust someone after first establishing a personal relationship. Which is why I was confident that by improving her understanding of her boss’s expectations and communication style, Pavlina could develop a positive relationship with him and achieve the results she wanted.

The more effort one makes at finding common ground with another person, the easier it is to establish a comfortable and successful working relationship that will be benefit both parties.

Originally published in Prague Leaders Magazine.