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.

“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. They are dependent on their boss’s direction. In contrast, workplaces in Canada have a “low power distance” culture. In this environment, employees have a greater influence on how the work gets done. They are expected to contribute ideas and challenge their bosses’ decisions if needed.

It will take some time to adjust if you are used to a high power distance culture. Observing your current workplace will help you adapt 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, including bosses. This is another characteristic of a low power distance culture. It’s informal. Hierarchy still exists – employees answer to supervisors – but each one has a voice. Employees are expected to play active roles in carrying out their responsibilities, improving work, and advocating for their rights and professional growth.

    Newcomer tip: If you’re meeting your boss 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 name after the initial meeting. Make sure to do so. Continuing to use titles (especially “sir” or “ma’am”) is too formal. It can make situations awkward.

  2. Establishing credibility

    What does establishing 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 doing your job well. In the Canadian workplace:

    • You should confidently contribute, suggest ideas, offer solutions or speak up when you see issues or problems.
    • Being proactive means not needing to ask 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 respectfully 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 follow. It is illegal for employers to go against them. If you are asked to do something that goes against these standards, you should 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 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. Read Disagreeing agreeably: An essential skill in the Canadian workplace to learn some techniques.

  3. The Canadian style of communication

    Use the Three C’s of Canadian communication:

    • Clarity – Deliver a clear message. Make sure that you don’t leave your boss doubting after the conversation.
    • Coherence – Your message must be easy to understand. Deliver your message in a logical manner and 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. Everyone has responsibilities and may not have time for long conversations. Deliver the most important message first. Also, know the right time to make small talk. Your boss may be approachable, but a project meeting is not the right time to tell your supervisor about a personal problem.
    • Use language softeners – Canadian communication involves the use of language softeners. For example, your supervisors may not tell you what to change or do. They will suggest options instead. They might say “perhaps you could?” or “do you think it will be better if…”).

      If you are asking for something, use “please ___” or “would you mind ____?”. Most would say “thanks” to end a conversation.

  4. Body language

    Body language is an important part of communication. Gestures and facial expressions help amplify your message. Some non-verbal signals can even make you appear confident, approachable and engaging. These include:

    • Maintaining eye contact – This shows that you are interested and attentive. It also shows respect. A major no-no is looking at your mobile phone when someone is talking to you. This is disrespectful.
    • A good handshake – A firm handshake shows mutual respect. It is an indication that you are pleased to meet the person.
    • Having an open posture – Don’t slouch, look down, or cross your arms across your chest. These are 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.

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

  5. Be solutions-focused

    It’s important to be proactive about workplace issues, whether it involves your responsibilities or an organizational concern. Speak to your boss in a timely manner and present a complete case. This means having a complete grasp of the situation and the facts surrounding it. It will help to anticipate questions and offer possible solutions. You gain extra points if you can explain the implications of each option. This is the best way to empower your boss. You’re helping them make a fully informed decision.

    Newcomer tip: When facing a workplace problem, focus on why and how it happened, and offer solutions. Pinning the blame on anyone should not be your priority. However, solutions should always be suggested respectfully. Don’t overstep your role and insist on doing things your way. It may help to frame your suggestion in the form of a question like “Perhaps, it will help to…” or “Maybe we should try …”, then add “but it’s your call”. This shows that you have evaluated the situation to best of your ability, but you also respect your boss’s decision.

    In case your suggestion is rejected, don’t feel bad. There may be considerations that you are not aware of at your level. Just keep offering good ideas. This way, your boss will see you as a problem solver.

Article updated September 14, 2023.
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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