The good subordinate

What makes a good subordinate? Here are five ways to support your boss and the company, while boosting your own career.
Paul Lewis
May 29, 2018

‘You’re the boss, I’m an idiot; I’m the boss, you’re an idiot,’ was a common refrain among workers in Soviet Russia. If nothing else, this insight into a brutal ‘boss-subordinate’ relationship had the benefit of clarity. Our terminology in today’s changing workplace may be gentler, but the junior staff member’s role remains a relatively unclear area of management. Few experts, for example, offer guidance on how to be a great subordinate, writes the FT’s Isabel Berwick, which is an odd omission given that even senior leaders are beholden to someone.

Being a good ‘underling’ is complicated, and there are few clear guidelines. The boss’s own behaviour plays a large part in determining how team members behave. First, one cannot assume that juniors are always devoted to their careers, or even seek promotion. Many prefer to ‘keep a part of themselves tucked away from work’, writing books, working for charity or having a ‘side hustle’, says Berwick. A lack of corporate ambition can easily lead to clock-watching and Monday-morning ‘sickies.’ But this needn’t happen if bosses are sensitive to their non-work life, and understand that a seemingly small change (such as scheduling early morning meetings that disrupt the school run) can have a big impact.

It is also easier to fine-tune this relationship if the boss is genuinely open to feedback from below—and convincingly so. It won’t be enough to say: ‘my door is always open’. A manager needs to go out of his or her way to create a safe environment for feedback, otherwise only the bravest (or bullet-headed) minion will take that risk.

Moreover, there’s not always just one boss to consider. The dreaded ‘dotted reporting line’ continues to confuse many an organisational chart, which can increase stress, divide loyalties, and intensify office politics.

All that said, a good staff member should never be content with saying: ‘they tell us what to do and we do it; or worse, suck up to the boss. Here are a few points of guidance for junior staff.

Make the boss look good. In theory, the junior’s main concern should be to help the boss look good to his superiors. This requires a sensitivity to the various pressures he or she is facing. In return, his reports get protection from blame if things go wrong. Longer-term, there would be promotions as the boss takes the next step up the corporate ladder. However, this unspoken deal can easily break down. There is the vexed question of perceived bias and favouritism, not to mention whether your manager takes full credit for your ideas. That needn’t necessarily be a problem. But if his superiors in turn do not consider your boss to be a high-flier, then it potentially closes off promotion opportunities for those below.

Be a problem-solver. The much-quoted management refrain ‘to bring me solutions not problems’ should always be kept in mind. There are few things more valuable to your boss than a lighter in-tray. It also helps make you more indispensable. However, your solutions may be implausible at best, while your boss may be a particularly good problem solver. So always check first if your idea will fly.

Deliver! No matter how inconvenient the task, it’s better to achieve it in spite of any difficulties that unexpectedly arise than to fail with a good excuse. Taking the former approach underlines the credibility of your ‘word’ (and your heroic endeavour can make for good after-work drinking tales). Of course, circumstances may arise when it is impossible to fulfill an agreed task. In that case, anticipate the problem early, and apply the previous rule on problem solving.

Remember, you only see part of the picture. What a junior staff member might think is obvious may be viewed differently by a boss with access to a lot more information. Even if the former is correct, their concerns don’t always carry equal weight. Just because you think the boss is wrong, doesn’t make him so.

Be enthusiastic. An attribute that applies especially to recruits just out of college: every task regardless of how mundane or pointless should be viewed as a positive challenge to be embraced. Even if no-one truly believes that this is how you feel, this approach removes unnecessary guilty feeling from the boss, shows some mettle, and will be highly appreciated.

A version of this article first appeared in Forbes.