By Liz Ryan The comedian George Carlin has a great line: "Have you ever noticed that anyone driving faster than you is a maniac, and anyone driving slower than you is a moron?"
He has a point. We humans have narrow tolerances -- for driving speed, room temperature, the volume at which we listen to music -- and we're pretty attached to them.
NEGLECTED OR HASSLED? This tendency can have a mighty impact at work, because just as we're particular about the saltiness of a dish or the temperature of our bathwater, so are we sensitive about the length of the leash on which we're managed.
Some of us like to go it alone with little direction (or interference) from the boss. So we feel second-guessed by a manager who watches every move we make. Then there are those of us who would rather become partners with our manager, and feel neglected when left to ourselves, wondering whether anyone is even aware of our contributions.
I had an experience with the latter type of boss in my early career. He greeted me at the front door on my first day at work, walked me around the office, introduced me to key players, and made me feel welcome. "Wow!" I thought. "This is way better than some tedious orientation class."
HIRED AND ABANDONED. At tour's end, he escorted me to my office -- an empty room. "You'll need to get some furniture," he noted. "Someone in purchasing can help with that." Then he left. Apart from his weekly staff meetings, our next interaction was three months later. True, I'd felt smothered by my previous boss and was looking for some independence. But I hadn't planned on being shipwrecked on a corporate desert island.
If your boss's tendency is to manage you more closely or loosely than you'd like, can you do anything to adjust your leash?
Yes, you can.
SUBTLE GAME. Probably the most important tip is to try changing your manager's too-close or too-distant style subtly and gradually, instead of with some grand gesture. Let's say that on your last project you felt as smothered as a Louisiana crawfish in a bowl of étouffée, and you need some space. Try saying to your boss:
"You know, Sarah, I've got some ideas for the XYZ project that I'd like to get your thoughts on. In particular, I want to get a feel for the milestones you're most interested in and the most relevant metrics at each of those points, so I can keep you in the loop without having to take up a lot of your time."
You're telling Sarah, in essence, that you want her two cents up front so that you won't have to bother her later. You want to break her of her habit of constantly checking in. And if you position this preproject meeting correctly, you'll allow her to feel more comfortable with being less involved day-to-day -- and stand a good chance of getting the freedom you want.
SPEAK -- AND BE HEARD. The same advice applies in the opposite situation, when you'd love a little more direction and connection with your manager: Use a specific initiative as a pilot project for the closer interaction you seek.
"Sarah, as I jump into the XYZ project, I'd love to sit down with you and go through my plan," you'll suggest. "Because there are some key decision points along the way, I'd like to get your input initially and at two or three other junctures." It's pretty hard for a boss to say no to this approach. Once you get your manager comfortable with more frequent interaction, you may find that she's quite interested in your work.
And whenever the leash is perfectly adjusted to your liking -- on a certain project or during a particular week or month -- then by all means say so.
POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. "Sarah, thanks for your great suggestions on my plan," you'll coo (or write in an e-mail). "They were just what I needed." Or: "Sarah, I'm so pleased that you're comfortable with my plan for the next six weeks." (Left unsaid: It will be a joy not to look up from my desk eight times a day and see you standing there waiting for a status report.)
You get the idea. Offer the boss an easy way to demonstrate the behavior you want, then reinforce the heck out of that behavior. Over time, you can train a boss to manage you the way you'd like to be managed. Cats do it to humans every day, after all, so how hard can it be? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT