Some people are good at their job and some are good at pleasing their boss. These are not mutually exclusive. It’s no good being brilliant at your job but constantly at war with your boss; neither is it helpful if you can’t do the job but your boss thinks you’re brilliant.

Keeping the boss happy makes perfect sense, they allocate your work, set your targets, complete your annual appraisal, determine your bonus, influence your promotion prospects and make your life easy or hard. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in the organisation, whether you’re the chief executive keeping the leader of the council happy or an admin assistant trying to keep on the right side of your team leader, there is a lot of pleasing the boss going on. Only it does matter.

I have experienced senior management teams where the directors vie to keep the chief executive happy, only telling them what they want to hear, trying to outdo each other in setting targets and agreeing deadlines, competing to come up with plans and suggestions that the boss will like. Don’t expect any debate at senior management team meetings if everyone is competing to please the boss. Don’t expect anyone to challenge or to ask awkward questions. Don’t expect to be given a rationale: just accept this is what the boss wants. It’s not hard to see how this might lead to over ambitious targets, unrealistic time scales, self censorship and a growing gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

In my experience senior managers are even more prone to trying to please the boss than those further down the organisation. I have heard a chief exec say: “Look it doesn’t matter whether we think this will work or whether we think it is the best or even a sensible use of resources it’s what the leader wants.”

The implication was “keep the leader happy and we will all be able to get on with our jobs with minimal inteference”. Of course at the root of this is fear, fear of being marginalised, simply excluded from the discussions and the decisions despite your position, fear that despite your commitment and ability you will be portrayed as cynical and resistant to change and fear that you will be unsupported and made the scapegoat when something goes wrong, the targets aren’t met, the outcomes not achieved.

It’s not as if the boss needs to make any of this explicit. I saw a group of senior managers cowered by the simple technique of putting people on the spot by asking one of them in front of their staff to explain “our” position on this. Of course there had been no prior discuss. The director concerned either had to say they didn’t know and look stupid in front in front of their staff or guess what they were expected to say and risk being publically corrected. Either way the message was clear this director was considered not to be “on board”. 

It is down to the boss to ensure people are not simply trying to keep them happy. A good boss welcomes a challenge and is prepared to accept that they are not always right. They also need to accept that sometimes, people want to be able to tell them that, too.