How to speak to your boss effectively

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Learning how to communicate effectively with your boss is an important part of relationship-building and establishing your credibility in the Canadian workplace. The better you are at dealing (and communicating) 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, the boss makes the decisions and subordinates mainly agree; they rarely question their superiors and are dependent on their direction. In Canada, the workplace culture is “low power distance.” Employees have a greater influence on how work gets done. Subordinates are expected to contribute ideas and challenge their bosses’ decision respectfully if needed (Paul A. Holmes, Workplace Integration desk reference for newcomers to Canada).

It will take a bit of time and effort to wean yourself out of certain habits if you are used to a high power distance culture. But once you get a more solid understanding of Canadian workplace culture, you will begin communicating better with everyone, especially your boss. You can 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 more informal. Everyone is considered equal and deserving of respect. To be sure, a hierarchy exists – we still answer to our supervisors – but each employee has a seat at the table. This means that in matters of work, you have as much right as anyone to speak about matters that are within your expertise and area of responsibility. Everyone is expected to play an active role in carrying out their responsibilities, improving work and advocating for rights and professional growth.

    Newcomer tip: When you are new to the company, 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 use their last names (for example: “I’m pleased to meet you Ms. Thiessen or Mr. Smith”). When they hear this, they will insist that you call them by their first names. Make sure to do so. Continuing to use such titles (especially “sir” or “ma’am”) is too formal and can make casual situations awkward.

  2. Establishing credibility

    What does building your credibility mean? This is the process where you start proving your worth. It is demonstrating that you have the knowledge and ability to do your job effectively. When done right, it also builds your supervisor’s trust and confidence in you. A large part of this process 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 you don’t have to ask your boss for permission to do your job.
    • You have the right to defend your ideas, actions or decision.
    • 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.
    • You can seek clarification 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 stupid. Asking for clarification shows that you want to do the job right. It actually builds your credibility.

    Newcomer tip: Respect is an integral element 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 3C’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 clear and respectful language.
    • Coherence – Your message must be easy to understand. Deliver your message in a logical manner. Have clear 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; they may not have time for long conversations. Show that you respect your supervisor’s time by telling them the most important message first. Also, know the right time to make small talk and when not to. Your boss may be quite 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. They also show your openness to communicate. 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 shows respect. An example of what NOT to do is to look at your mobile phone when someone is talking to you. This is disrespectful.
    • A good handshake – A firm (but not crushing) handshake is a sign of mutual respect. It is an indication that you are pleased to meet the person.
    • 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 your bosses’ 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 …”

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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