How Much Alone Time Do I Need With My Boss?

An HR expert discusses spending time with your boss; dumb interview questions; and not agreeing with the direction your company is headed in.

How Much Alone Time Do I Need With My Boss?

Most of us work more than we live, which is to say we spend considerably more time at the office and with our coworkers than we do with the human beings we actually want in our lives. It also means that the stressors and anxieties of work become a significant part of who we are — and can be a real drag even when we’re not at the office. We here at MEL, however, don’t want all that stress to get to you — or worse, kill you. That’s why we’ve enlisted Terry Petracca, the hippest HR expert we know, to help solve all your work-related woes.

My question is super-simple: How much alone time should anyone have (or aspire to have) with their superiors at work? —Rich H., Los Angeles
Assuming that “alone time” means one-on-one professional time, and not an assignation, it depends. What do you want the alone time for?

Most good managers schedule weekly or biweekly one-on-one sessions to review current goals and deliverables, talk about obstacles to achieving results and discuss future plans. If your manager isn’t scheduling these types of meetings, you should be proactive and schedule them yourself. Maybe your manager is someone you want to learn from — you respect his or her knowledge and admire their management style and/or ability to get things done. Ask them if you can schedule coaching or mentoring time, especially after important meetings occur.

Participating in group meetings with your manager is one way to observe successful soft skills like:

  • The ability to persuade and negotiate without browbeating people into submission.
  • Assuaging someone’s antipathy to an idea so they’re converted to your point of view.
  • Managing conversations so everyone feels included.
  • Controlling the cadence of the meeting so that outcomes and actions are achieved.

Your follow-up one-on-one coaching session then allows you to dig deeper on the whys and hows of being successful. Think of it as your own personal case-study time. These regular conversations can help you prepare for the next professional step or think through career aspirations.

A few words of caution are needed, however. One-on-one sessions shouldn’t be suck-up or bitch sessions about your colleagues or company. Also, remember that your manager isn’t your bro. And be careful to avoid the favoritism label from your peers. This usually leads to backstabbing, sabotage or worse if they think you’re privy to information or opportunities they aren’t.

What’s the dumbest thing you think someone can ask at an interview — both for the interviewer and interviewee? —Cory S., Vancouver, British Columbia
The stupidest interview situations I’ve seen have been less about the questions and more about the settings. For example, we had one executive who would put piles of papers on every available chair in his office and ask the interviewee to take a seat. He wanted to see what the candidate would do: Ask permission to move the papers, move them by himself or just stand. We told him that intimidation tactics weren’t part of our culture so he needed to stop being a jerk.

Plus, stupid questions aren’t always so stupid. Glassdoor has an annual list of “Oddball Interview Questions” that will make you roll your eyes, until you realize that some interviewer questions try to convey the quirkiness of the organization, while others are proxies for hard skills. Look at some of the questions at the top of the list from 2016 and see if they resonate with what you know about the company:

  • SpaceX: “When a hot dog expands, in which direction does it split and why?”
  • Whole Foods Market: “Would you rather fight 1 horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses?”
  • J.W. Business Acquisitions: “How would you sell hot cocoa in Florida?”

The stupidest questions you can ask as an interviewee are the ones HR can answer for you — e.g., “How many vacation days will I get?” and “Is there a 401k match?” Clever questions are fine, but that cleverness can be turned back around on you. So when you ask an interviewer, “Are you as cool as your ads?,” be prepared to be asked, “How cool are you?”

Recently, I had a friend, who’s a manager at his company, have to be the cheerleader to sell his department on a change that really sucked. My friend, though, was expected to put a positive spin on it when he introduced the change to his team — even though he himself hated the change.

What should my friend do? Should he be honest and level with his team that the change sorta sucks? Or can he get in trouble with his bosses if it gets back to them that he’s talking shit instead of buying in?—Lawrence K., Phoenix
Studies over time consistently indicate that managers are the number-one reason why employees leave organizations. That’s because your manager is both your first line of offense and defense. On offense, s/he is your advocate for resources, visibility, recognition and growth. On defense, s/he runs interference, deflects unwarranted criticism and/or falls on their sword whenever necessary.

While there are many points of views about what makes a great manager, I believe the most critical attribute is authenticity. A manager needs their employees to believe them because they’re the gatekeeper for truth and knowledge about the company. If they lose that, they lose their employees because their direct reports don’t know if anything they say matters and end up not listening.

So when faced with telling employees unpleasant truths, a good manager should be willing to share the following:

  • Did s/he have a chance to voice their point of view when they learned about the proposed change? Did they try to effect any changes, and were they successful? (Perhaps the change is actually better than the original proposal because of his or her influence.)
  • Can they explain the change from a business standpoint and own that explanation? (In other words, did they dig into the facts or numbers?)
  • Is the manager secure enough to explain why it’s not the solution he or she might have created, but is the one that will be pursued? Does the organization culture allow that honesty?

A manager should never state publicly to their team that an idea or initiative sucks — there’s private time with their management to express that sentiment. But there’s no need to be an unquestioning cheerleader either. After all, they have the ability to inspire or sink the ship. To be on the positive side of that ledger, it’s all about preserving authenticity and respect, which will result in a reputation based on being a leader, not a malcontent or antagonist.

Don’t just complain to your coworkers about everyone else you work with — let Terry help. Email her all your office-related anxieties at terry@melindustries.com. Or, if total anonymity isn’t required, leave a question in the comments below.