How to Behave with Your Supervisor and Superiors at Work

Are you comfortable dealing with people above you in your company’s chain of command? Do you know what courtesies are due them? This article explains the etiquette involved in dealing with your supervisor and others who are your superior in rank.

Reasons for deference to superiors. In every company, no matter how friendly and informal the atmosphere, there are differences in rank. The distinction between rank is a real one (or should be), because it is based on differences in authority and responsibility, and in value to the company. Just as social etiquette recognizes distinctions in social rank, business etiquette takes into account the differences in rank in a business organization.

As an employee in any company, large or small, you will be expected to show your superiors a certain degree of deference and respect. This applies to whatever non-working contact you have with them during the day—chance meetings, and so on—as well as to work situations. There is nothing in this that is demeaning or that infringes on your personal dignity; it is simply a recognition of the other person’s position.

Examples of basic courtesy to superiors. It would be all but impossible to put down a precise set of rules; exactly what you do in any given situation will depend on the person you are dealing with, and on the particular circumstances. For example, your immediate supervisor probably expects little in the way of formalities of respect from you, because he works fairly closely with you and may not be far removed in rank. But a man on a higher plane above you will expect certain behavior from you in the form of formalities.

For example, you would probably not stand when your immediate superior entered your office or approached your desk. But if the company president, or someone else on a high executive level above you, were to approach you or enter your office, you would ordinarily stand to greet him. You would remain standing until he indicated that you should be seated or until he got what information or papers he wanted and left. If you were part of a group that was meeting when he entered, you would all stand.

Here are some other examples of how you might demonstrate your sense of respect for those above you in your company. You would address a senior as “Mr. Jones,” until he says otherwise (as your supervisor might do). In fact, you should wait for a senior to make all overtures of informality and personal friendship. You would cut short a phone call, or a visit from another employee, rather than keep a superior waiting. You would allow him to enter a room or an elevator before you if you approached it at the same time.

Go through channels. A universal rule, although it is often an unwritten one, says that you should always follow the chain of command in dealing with people on different levels in your company. It is especially important that you not go “over the head” of your immediate supervisor.

To violate this rule is a serious breach of business manners. When you take information, or an idea, or a complaint, directly to your supervisor’s superior (or higher), you place your supervisor in an awkward position. His boss knows something your supervisor doesn’t know but should, something about his own area of responsibility. And the fact that you have bypassed your supervisor suggests that you lack confidence in his ability or willingness to handle the matter himself. As you might expect, a supervisor who learns that you have gone over his head will consider you ill-mannered, possibly even untrustworthy.

Even if the matter in question is a complaint against your super visor himself, you should take it up with him before going to some one higher. The chances are your supervisor wants to correct any misunderstanding just as much as you do. But he may not realize that there is a problem or a misunderstanding, unless you tell him.

You are justified in going over your supervisor’s head only if your problem is a very important one, and your supervisor will not or cannot help. This will rarely be the ease.

Be loyal. One of the things your company pays you for is loyalty. Every company feels it has the right to expect that its employees will work for it, and not against it. In the same way, your immediate supervisor will expect a certain amount of loyalty from you—not blind obedience, but a willingness to work toward achieving his goals.

There is more to being loyal to your supervisor than simply doing as you are told. If you criticize him to others, you are not being loyal, even though you work hard for him. If you neglect to make him aware of information or ideas that could help him (or his staff or department) accomplish more or do a better job, you are not being loyal. The same is true if you fail to inform him of a problem, or potential problem. (This doesn’t mean that you should try to tell your supervisor how to do his lob; it simply means that you should think in terms of helping him.)

If you work for someone who you think is discourteous to you, or treats you unfairly, you may feel that you don’t owe him loyalty. It is true that courtesy and loyalty are for supervisors, too; nevertheless, so long as you work under someone, your loyalty to him will be expected.

Respect the supervisor’s time. One of the most important (and most appreciated) business courtesies you can extend to your supervisor is to respect his time. There are two types of demands you can make on his time, both of which can be systematically minimized:

  • Amount (how much of his time you take)
  • Frequency (how often you interrupt him)
  • How to spare your supervisor’s time. Here are a few suggestions for minimizing the amount of time you require from your supervisor:
    1. Learn your duties thoroughly. A thorough knowledge of your job enables you to handle it on your own, without taking up your Supervisor’s time.
    2. Learn what things are important, and what things are not. Then make it a practice not to bother your supervisor with unimportant matters.
    3. Be prepared when you take your supervisor’s time. Think out problems as far as you can before you take them to him. If you have your own conclusion or recommendation, give that to him first, then give him the facts and reasons behind it. Have with you whatever files or correspondence you might need in discussing the problem.
  • How not to interrupt. Constant interruptions make concentration on business problems difficult, if not impossible, for your supervisor. Here are suggestions for helping him in this respect:
    1. Make a list of questions, instead of taking each one to him separately. One long interruption is better than many short ones.
    2. Select a proper time for interrupting. Your supervisor is probably busier at certain times of the day than at others. Try to wait until he is not too busy before you approach him with your questions; he will appreciate it, and he will have more time to give you.
    3. Put questions in writing. If you give your supervisor a written memo on a problem he can give it his attention at a time that is most convenient to him. Many men prefer this system, since it reduces interruptions and gives them flexibility in the use of their time.
  • What a secretary can do. If you are a secretary to a busy executive, you can perform a real service by helping him organize his working time, and by protecting him from interruptions and other time-wasters.
  • Does your executive have an “open door” policy? Many men in supervisory positions try to follow an “open door” policy, meaning that their door is always open to employees who want to see them. If you take such a policy too literally, and run to your supervisor (or another executive) with every little thing that troubles you, you are guilty of violating the rules of business etiquette. The fact that an executive has an open door policy shows that he is making an effort to consider your point of view, and to respect your problems. You should return this courtesy by not imposing on his time without good reason; nor should you go through that door too often, even though it is open to you.

How to behave when you’re criticized by your boss. Your supervisor is supposed to tell you what you are doing wrong, and explain how to do it properly; that’s his job. If you have trouble accepting criticism, you are making your supervisor’s job more difficult than it should be. in addition, you are denying yourself an excellent opportunity to learn and to improve.

  • When criticism is merited. If you have made or are making a mistake, you should expect your supervisor to point it out. Here are some suggestions that will let you benefit from criticism:
    1. Don’t take criticism personally. Your supervisor is much more concerned with the mistake itself than with the person who made it; he hasn’t the time to find fault with you as a human being. He points out mistakes to prevent them from happening again, not to ridicule you personally. If you keep that in mind, you will save yourself the anger or hurt feelings that you might otherwise experience.
    2. Remember that criticism helps you improve. Learning what is wrong is just as important as learning what is right. When your supervisor shows you your mistakes, he is teaching you something. You should welcome criticism, then, because it will help you improve in your work.
    3. Show your supervisor that you accept criticism constructively. No supervisor enjoys finding fault. By letting your supervisor know that you take his criticism in a positive way, you help him feel that you are both making progress. This is satisfying to him, and to you.
  • What about unjustified criticism? A real test of your business manners comes when you are blamed for something that isn’t your fault. What should you do? If your first instinct is to bristle and deny it, or blame the person who is really responsible for the mistake, control it; you will only cause bad feelings. If your supervisor has made his own mistake in blaming you, he will hardly appreciate having it thrown in his face. If you are quick to blame someone else, that person won’t be very happy, even though the blame is his.

Instead of protesting, then, swallow your temper and some of your pride. If the mistake is an unimportant one, why not let it go as though it were your fault? You might say something like this:

That’s true; there should have been three copies. I’ll take care of it.

Here are some other suggested phrases for situations of this kind:

I think I know what may have caused that. Let me look into it.

Yes, someone should have checked that order more carefully. Do you want me to call Shipping?

I didn’t set up that job, but I can straighten it out for you with Al.

This type of reply is far better (and more considerate) than saying, “See Al; he did that, not me,” or, “I never handle those orders,” or, “I don’t know anything about it.”

Show a willingness to cooperate. Try to show your supervisor, by your attitude and your actions, that you are willing to do what he asks, as well as you can, without grumbling. By this simple courtesy you make his job easier, and you help create a working atmosphere of mutual cooperation.

Naturally, this is more than just a matter of courtesy; if you want to be successful in any business you must be willing to work hard and learn. But the fact remains that your supervisor will appreciate the cooperative spirit that tells him, “You can count on me to help.”

How to handle conflicting orders. Suppose a man who outranks your supervisor gives you an order that conflicts with instructions your supervisor has given you. What should you do? Clearly, this is a situation that requires tact. Here are four pointers that will help you avoid embarrassment and trouble.

1. Don’t argue, or create an argument between your superiors. if a man who outranks your supervisor asks you to do something, and you answer tactlessly, you can cause friction between the two men. Replies such as, “I can’t do that; Mr. Gray told me to do it this way,” or, “You’d better see Mr. Gray on that; I work for him,” are apt to antagonize an executive.

2. if immediate action isn’t necessary, you can acknowledge the order, and then consult with your supervisor at the first opportunity. if your supervisor doesn’t want you to carry out the order, it is up to him to take up the mailer with the other executive.

3. if the matter is an urgent one and your supervisor is not avail able for consultation, you must accept the higher-ranking executive’s authority. The safest policy is to indicate that you will do as you are asked, but to make it known in a tactful way that you will be violating your supervisor’s instructions. If you can, try to explain why your supervisor gave you different instructions; the other man may then decide that your original instructions are more sensible, and with draw his own orders. If he still insists that his orders be carried out, you have no choice but to obey.

Here is how such a situation might be handled:

‘That won’t be any trouble, Mr. Brown. The only problem is that Mr. Gray gave orders not to quote any delivery dates until we had definite word from the factory about the strike.”

“I can do that for you, Mr. Brown, but I’d better mention that Mr. Gray told me not to do any work on that account until the Credit Department OK’s it.”

4. Regardless of what you do at the moment, be sure to tell your supervisor about the incident at the earliest possible opportunity. It is important that he know about it promptly, so that if further action is needed he can take it. If you should fail to inform him of what happened, he could be put in an embarrassing position. This is true of anything that happens in your office, but it is especially true when the situation is a potentially problematical one like conflict of orders.

Asking for time off. It is inconsiderate to take time off from your job except for reasons of sickness or family emergency. Those with whom you work count on you to be there regularly, and to do your share of the work. This is especially true of your supervisor, naturally. If you must take time off, however, there are at least two ways in which you can show your consideration for your supervisor. You Can:

  • inform him as promptly as possible of the fact that you will need time off (obviously, this is not possible with sudden illness)
  • organize your work so that he will be inconvenienced as little as possible by your absence.

Asking for a raise. If you feel that you are not being paid enough for the work you do, you have the right to make your opinion known to your supervisor, and to ask for an increase in pay. Whether you win your case should depend mainly on whether you deserve an increase, and not on how you ask for it. Nevertheless, you can hurt your chances if you are rude or demanding in presenting your request.

Here are some approaches you should avoid; they miss the main point, and are offensive to many supervisors.

“I need the money.” A company can’t pay according to need; it must pay according to merit and the employee’s value to the company. Telling your supervisor about your personal financial problems may only embarrass him, and it doesn’t give him a reason for paying you more.

“I’ve been here a long time.” Unless you have continued to fin- prove on the job, and to learn, it won’t help your case to point out how long you’ve been there.

“I should be making more than Frank; I’ve been here longer.” Don’t use this comparative salary argument unless you can add “. . . and I am doing a better job.” It won’t help you, and it might hurt Frank; the statement implies that Frank is less than discreet about discussing his salary.

“If you want me to stay, pay me more.” The threat is only asking for trouble. It will antagonize the supervisor, and it will put you in an awkward position if your demand is turned down.

The best way to get a raise is to present solid evidence that you deserve it. Show specific accomplishments since your last increase; point out new or additional responsibilities you have been handling; show how you have saved the company money, or have improved a method with your ideas, or have increased the production of your staff or department; prove that you have been putting in extra time and effort. These are the positive reasons for an increase that carry weight with a supervisor.

Above all, don’t have a chip on your shoulder when you see your supervisor about a raise. Be positive, but not belligerent or argumentative.

When you are leaving the company. Whatever the reason why you are leaving a company, beware the temptation to say, “I’m a free agent and can speak my piece about my supervisor and the company.” Business etiquette, like social etiquette, is not something you practice only when you have to, or want to. Even if you are leaving because you are dissatisfied with your supervisor or with company policies, avoid a display of bad business manners when the time comes to leave.

  • How not to behave. Suppose you have given your employer two weeks’ notice (it is inconsiderate not to do so). Remember that you will still be a paid employee during that period. It would be unfair of you to do little or no work, openly criticize your supervisor or ridicule the company, or otherwise demoralize other employees. Your supervisor should be able to expect that you will perform your assignments as usual until you leave.
  • If you should be fired. If you are fired, make a special effort to keep your temper. It will only make things worse if you fly off the handle and start an argument. Instead, concentrate on finding out why you were found wanting; there might be an important lesson in it for your future.

1 Comment

  1. This article was written 7 years ago. I wonder if you’ve since come to the understanding that many superiors and executives are not men.

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