There’s plenty of give, take in manager-employee relationship (Guest commentary)

One person’s idea of relationship heaven could be another person’s definition of hell
By Sue Nador
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/28/2014

The manager-employee relationship is like any other — whether it’s one with our friends, our lovers or the guy selling hotdogs outside the office. It works well when there is a fair exchange between give and take. But when either person feels they are giving more than they are getting, resentment seeps in, the relationship erodes and the outcomes are rarely good.

Relationships are a deal

The opportunity in every relationship is to figure out expectations at the outset. Too often, assumptions are made about what the “relationship deal” is. Sometimes, it is discovered too late in the game that some of these assumptions were flawed.

What we expect from any relationship is unique, driven by our personal histories, values and life situation. One person’s idea of a great relationship deal is often another person’s definition of hell on earth.

One employee with a huge need to balance work and family may be prepared to put up with an incompetent manager in exchange for flexible hours, reasonable work demands and a short commute. The manager may also put up with this employee’s lack of ambition, creativity and office etiquette because she is reliably performing a hard-to-fill role.

By their respective definitions, the relationship works because each has expectations that are being met.

But this type of deal may stink for another employee-manager duo. The employee may have higher expectations of a manager, wanting one who can satisfy a need for coaching and mentorship while stretching work opportunities that would support ambitious plans to climb the corporate ladder. In exchange, the employee is prepared to work like a dog to support the manager’s own need to have a winning team and shine in front of executive team.

Alignment of expectations

All employees sign on the dotted line to accept the tangibles of employment — how much they will be paid, the benefits they are entitled to and the key responsibilities they will assume. But our working lives are full of intangibles that are just as important. And often more work needs to be devoted to making the intangibles of relationships more concrete at the outset.

It’s important to have a conversation between a manager and employee to figure out where expectations align (and where they don’t). Knowing where there are disconnects can help those involved bridge expectations, create work-around solutions or bail before the relationship advances too far. It’s easier to fix things before they are broken, much harder to repair a relationship that is crumbling.

Performance, feedback and work style: Relationship deal components

What are the relationship buckets that should be part of the manager-employee relationship deal? At a minimum:

Expectations on performance: Setting goals (during orientation or as part of the subsequent annual review) is the easy part, confirming that there is a shared understanding of what “exceeds expectations” versus “meets expectations” looks like; respective roles in meeting these objectives, and where the manager’s mandate ends and the employee’s begins is a deeper conversation that supports a strong relationship. Employees also want to know if they give a certain level of performance, what will they get in terms of career development, compensation and other rewards?

Expectations on feedback: Feedback is important to most people, but it’s often difficult to be honest when it comes to providing constructive feedback — particularly when it comes to an employee giving this kind of feedback to managers. This is made easier when the criteria have been determined upfront. There are many areas in which feedback can matter, such as leadership style, work quality and teamwork. Defining what the desired behaviours look like together (such as what strong teamwork entails) focuses the conversation in an objective way that leads to constructive outcomes.

Expectations on work style: Liking someone and working with him can be two different things. You can like someone in small doses and start to find them completely irritating on a day-to-day basis. Managers and employees have an opportunity to contract about how they want to work together as partners. This includes figuring out: the right balance between autonomy and co-operation; the best type of communication to discuss trivial versus more substantive matters; and the boundaries in the relationship (such as expectations for sharing details about non-work/personal things).

Being clear about what one is willing to give and what one is expecting to get in return lays the foundation for a strong employee-manager relationship. And in an era where we are focused on talent, productivity and engagement, isn’t the investment in time and effort worth it?

Sue Nador is a relationship strategist, helping to hash out expectations in the messy world of work. She actively blogs on the topic of personal relationships too. For more information, visit

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