How to speak to your boss effectively

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Learning how to communicate effectively with your boss is an important part of establishing your credibility in the Canadian workplace. The better you are at dealing with your boss, the better you will be at your job.

Effective workplace communication

Did you come from a workplace where the boss is the boss is the boss?

Workplaces like this are said to have a “high power distance” culture. In this environment, employees rarely question their superiors and are dependent on their direction. In contrast, workplaces in Canada have a “low power distance” culture. In this environment, employees have a greater influence on how work gets done. They are expected to contribute ideas and challenge their bosses’ decisions if needed (Paul A. Holmes, Workplace Integration desk reference for newcomers to Canada).

It will take some time to adjust if you are used to a high power distance culture. Understanding your current workplace will help you cope and communicate better. Start by focusing on these five aspects:

  1. Egalitarianism and informality

    Have you noticed that everyone in the office calls each other by their first names? Yes, this includes bosses. This is another characteristic of a low power distance culture. It’s informal. To be sure, hierarchy still exists – employees still answer to supervisors – but each employee has a voice. Everyone is expected to play an active role in carrying out their responsibilities, improving work, and advocating for their rights and own professional growth.

    Newcomer tip: You may be hesitant to use your bosses’ first names for fear of sounding presumptuous. If you are meeting them for the first time, it’s okay to be more formal (for example: “I’m pleased to meet you Ms. Thiessen or Mr. Smith”). They will probably insist that you call them by their first names after the first meeting. Make sure to do so. Continuing to use titles (especially “sir” or “ma’am”) is too formal. It can make casual situations awkward.

  2. Establishing credibility

    What does building your credibility mean? It is showing your worth in the workplace. When done right, it builds your supervisor’s trust and confidence in you. It involves demonstrating that you have the knowledge and ability to do your job effectively. A large part of this is speaking up, voicing out your opinions and participating. In the Canadian workplace:

    • You should confidently contribute, suggest ideas, offer solutions or speak up when you see possible issues or problems.
    • Being proactive means not asking your boss for permission to do your job or to make improvements.
    • You have the right to defend your ideas, actions or decisions.
    • You have the right to correct your boss or challenge a decision, especially if it is within your area of expertise.
    • You have the right to say no to unsafe work or unfair labour practices. In fact, it’s your obligation. There are employment standards that every workplace must observe. It is illegal for employers not to follow them. If you are asked to do something that goes against these standards, you can say no.
    • Ask questions when you don’t understand. Most newcomers don’t want to ask because they risk losing face – they are worried that their boss might think that they are incompetent. Asking for clarification shows that you want to do the job right. It actually builds your credibility.

    Newcomer tip: Respect is an integral part of effective workplace communication. How you speak when you object, correct, suggest, or ask questions matters greatly whether you are talking to your boss, co-workers or clients. Observe and follow the Canadian style of communication. Being loud, aggressive, or too direct does not work in the Canadian workplace.

  3. The Canadian style of communication

    Use the 3 C’s of Canadian communication:

    • Clarity – Deliver a clear message. Make sure that you don’t leave your boss doubting after the conversation. This requires using exact and respectful language.
    • Coherence – Your message must be easy to understand. Deliver your message in a logical manner. Have good transitions from one idea to the next. Explain what you mean if the situation requires it.
    • Conciseness – Be brief and to the point. Bosses have many responsibilities and may not have time for long conversations. Tell them the most important message first. Also, know the right time to make small talk and when not to. Your boss may be approachable, but a project meeting may not be the right time to tell your supervisor about a personal problem. Always stay professional.
    • Use language softeners – Canadian communication involves the use of language softeners. For example, your supervisors will not tell you what to change. They will suggest instead (they will say “perhaps you could?” or “do you think it will be better if…”). Use “please” or “would you mind?” if you are requesting for something. People usually say “thanks” to close a conversation. Work towards an agreement and stay away from conflict.
  4. Body language

    Body language is an important part of effective communication. Gestures and facial expressions help amplify your message. Certain non-verbal signals help us appear confident, approachable and engaging. Some of these are:

    • Maintaining eye contact – This shows that you are interested and attentive. It also connotes respect. A major no-no is looking at your mobile phone when someone is talking to you. This is disrespectful.
    • A good handshake – Normally, a firm (but not crushing) handshake is a sign of mutual respect. It is an indication that you are pleased to meet the person. These days, a wave or a peace (or “namaste”) sign are better alternatives to avoid touching and maintain physical distancing.
    • Having an open posture – Don’t slouch or look down. Don’t cross your arms in front of you. These are universal signs that you don’t want to engage with anyone. Instead, sit upright. You can use the backrest but lean into the direction of the person you’re talking to from time to time. This shows that you are engaged and interested.
    • Facial expressions – Have an open and friendly expression. Don’t frown or look grumpy.

    Newcomer tip: Observe your boss’s communication style. Adapt and mirror some of what you see when you communicate. For example, my boss employs the “feedback sandwich” whenever she comments on my work. She starts with positive feedback, followed by constructive criticism and ends with another positive comment. When she asks for any type of feedback from me, I try to do the same (for more about providing constructive criticism read 5 steps to giving constructive feedback that really helps).

  5. Be solutions-focused

    We know that bosses are busy so don’t waste their time. When you ask to speak to your boss, always have a complete and well thought-out message. Get your facts straight and show that you have done your homework. Think ahead. Anticipate your bosses’ questions and have an answer. If you think about it, your job is to make their job easy. Empower your boss by offering good solutions and ideas.

    Newcomer tip: Refrain from blaming others. When you see a workplace problem, focus on why and how it happened and offer solutions. Don’t pin the blame on anyone. Everybody makes mistakes. Work with the team, not against them. Remember to suggest solutions respectfully. It may help to frame it in the form of a question like “Perhaps, it will help to…” or “Maybe we should try …”

Article updated September 27, 2021.
Sources: Workplace Integration desk reference for newcomers to Canada, Paul A. Holmes and How to effectively talk to your boss: 20 dos and don’ts, Joana Zambas, Career Addict. Retrieved August 27, 2019.

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