I want you to think of someone in your life. Do you have someone in mind? Let me guess, are you thinking of:
- Your spouse or partner?
- Your child?
- Your best friend?
It’s likely that the person who instantly comes to mind is one of the above. Anyone reading thinking of their boss? What’s interesting is that the average person spends 39.2 hours/day at work, which cumulates to 1,842 hours worked/year and 92,120 hours worked in a lifetime. And for most of us, these hours are spent working with a boss. Our relationship with our boss is important not just because we naturally spend a lot of time with him or her, but because there’s an opportunity to connect on a more meaningful level than just what lies on the surface.
When you know what your boss is thinking and feeling, when you can decode their thoughts and actions, you are able to manage up.
As a human behavior investigator, I have spent the last ten years studying the Science of People in my human behavior research lab. In my new book, I present a completely different approach to interacting with people. I think our relationships can be hacked for good. One of the most important skills is being able to understand why people behave the way they do. Here are five ways to help you decode your boss.
- Uncover your boss’s hidden emotions. Do you want to know what your boss really thinks about your idea? Learn how to spot and respond to their microexpressions. A microexpression is an innate universal human behavior. There are seven known universal microexpressions and they all occur fast, involuntarily and in response to feeling a corresponding emotion. When you can learn to detect a flash of anger or fake happiness, you can dig deeper with your boss to uncover their true feelings.
- Determine your boss’s value language. Social psychologist Dr. Uriel G. Foa discovered the resource theory of human relationships. He argues that all interactions are actually transactions, that people cooperate simply to give and take resources from each other. “A resource is defined as anything that can be transmitted from one person to another.” Resources can be physical like food, but there are also emotional resources that we need to both survive and thrive. Does your boss value information or being informed? Then be sure to keep them up to speed on your new project. Does your boss value service? Then go the extra mile to support and care for your boss in the professional setting. Knowing what someone values helps you to work with them more effectively.
- Crack your boss’s personality. I used to find people intimidating. I couldn’t keep personality differences straight. And I found it impossible to figure out behavior, let alone predict needs. Why did one friend love to chat while another never called me back? Why did some bosses encourage an open-door policy, while others used their secretary as a gatekeeper? Then one day I discovered the five-factor model of personality that ranks people as high or low in the following areas: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (easily remembered as OCEAN). When you can solve your boss’s matrix of personality–by either looking at behavioral patterns or asking them to take the official personality test, take note of how your relationship and conversations evolve. For example, if your boss is a low extrovert (prefers to work and brainstorm alone), perhaps you can send him or her your ideas before meetings so they can review them on their own time.
- Stop the small talk. Like a great roller coaster, great conversations leave you feeling both exhilarated and hoping you’ll never have to experience small talk again. Now, the death of small talk requires some effort. Like any good people hack, “big talk” means skirting conversational norms, challenging chitchat status quo, and shirking social scripts. Create conversational sparks with your boss. This means using unique talking points to create pleasurable and memorable conversation. Is your boss a big sports fan? Ask if he caught the game last night. Does your boss live for her next Broadway show? Tell her you saw a billboard for Phantom of the Opera coming to town. Conversational sparks make us and our conversation partner feel good, and these sparks help us to create a deeper connection with the people around us.
- Appreciate your boss (with science!). Dr. Gary Chapman and Dr. Paul White adapted their well-known “love language” model to fit the professional environment. These are called “appreciation languages” and here are the options: Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Acts of Service and Gifts. Does your boss send you long emails or handwritten cards? Most likely, their appreciation language is words of affirmation. Show them you appreciate them with an encouraging text or a surprise post-it on their computer. When we appreciate, we connect.
A version of this post originally appeared in the author’s book, “Captivate: The Science of Succeeding With People.“