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Career tip: Understanding your boss May 23, 2011

Posted by fetzthechemist in Uncategorized.

In almost every career in science, a scientist has a boss. I will define boss broadly here as an authority figure who has control of a person’s situation, compensation (included here are benefits), duties and responsibilities, and influence over the future direction of these. I define a boss this way so that even academicians realize that chairs of departments and deans are powerful and must be understood in order to make a professor’s career and life easier.

One of the biggest failings I see in people is that they put no effort into understanding this relationship. A boss can aid or hurt you and your career. If you do not work well with your boss or within the boss’s expected framework, you might suffer.

Your boss has her or his own job. Your boss has her or his own way of thinking. Your boss has her or his own set of experiences. These influence how the boss works and how the boss expects you to work. If you work on only your own goals and these are decided by your own criteria, you will set yourself up to be judged as inadequate.

What are some of the common misunderstanding between a supervisor and a subordinate? They are often misunderstandings of performance quality and meeting expectations. Rather bland sounding words, but examples can define them. Here are a few of the basic behavioral or attitudinal differences>

  • Big picture vs. details
  • Direct vs. indirect
  • Social vs. not-social
  • Perfectionist vs. good enough is enough
  • Intellectual vs. emotional
  • Results-oriented vs. process-oriented
  • Black and white vs. grays
  • 80 vs. 20

Is your boss a big picture person or detail oriented? This can translate into an expectation that a solution fit most of the time versus one dealing with a lot of the more likely exceptions. If your boss is big picture and you are detail oriented, then you might appear to be wasting effort by beating a project to dead in order to plan for numerous unlikely possibilities. If the pairing is the opposite, you might appear to do partial, cursory work.

Is your boss intellectual or emotional? One emphasizes the factual, the business oriented while the other includes the people aspects – how the solution affects those implementing it and those impacted by it. If you are opposite t your boss, you make seem either too soft and “namby-pamby” over the humanistic aspects or too focused only on the bottom-line and ignoring public perceptions and opinion.

Most scientists see the world in shades f gray. Few things are defined definitively as totally and always one way. But a black-and-white world view says that everything is categorically defined. Many business people and those in law are this type of personality, but sometimes a supervisor might be one, too. If so, you might be seen as wishy-washy and never reaching a firm decision because you worry that the situation is gray and not black r white.

80-20 is a version of big picture versus details oriented. Is your solution workable 80 % of the time? Maybe, but that ignores the 20 % of the times that are exceptions.

A boss’s experiences can skew these or if there were incidents that strongly impressed, they might redefine them. Listening to your boss’s comments and recounting of experiences might help you avoid a pitfall build from her or his past.



1. milo - May 25, 2011

Interesting post. I would assert that understanding a boss is necessary but not sufficient in order to minimize the damage a bad one can do to your career.

fetzthechemist - May 25, 2011

When you have a bad boss, you need to be aware that you walk within a minefield. Looking for mines and avoiding them does minimize the damage. But a lot of scientists stay clueless and just keep blaming the bad boss without trying to do that minimization.

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