How to Talk Effectively with Your (Civilian) Boss

President Donald J. Trump departs Arlington National Cemetery with Secretary of Defense James Mattis. (Sgt. James K. McCann/U.S. Army photo)

The military has a unique communication style and language of its own. Directness, candor and brevity are not only appreciated but are necessary to ensure that a mission is completed effectively.

In the military, published and understood standards and policies ensure information is communicated correctly, everyone operates from the same understanding, and risk is mitigated.

The civilian sector operates differently. There is not necessarily any uniformity, documented standards or agreed-to policies outside of legal, accounting and human resources guidelines. Therefore, navigating communication within the civilian system often throws military veterans a curveball.

Where are the rules about how to communicate with your boss in the civilian sector?

Your Civilian Boss

In the civilian world, your boss may have years of experience in the industry and the company, advanced certifications and degrees, and be considered an expert in their field. Or they may be new to the company, younger than you are and have less experience than you do. Either way, how you speak to them requires decorum because of their position (rank) in the company and their ability to influence your career path.

Unless your boss comes from a very similar military experience as you do, it's unreasonable to assume they will understand your direct, candid and brief communication style. Instead, when communicating with your boss -- whether it's casual chitchat, sharing important information, making a significant ask or relaying negative feedback -- follow these guidelines:

  1. Remember there are nuances to communicating in the civilian sector. Culture in a company is critical. How people get along at the company matters. When teams feel included, heard, respected and recognized, they thrive. To approach your communication with your boss without remembering that you are now in a sector that values experience and relationship would be naïve.
  2. Your boss has their own goals and needs. Consider what drives the person you're speaking with. What do they need to know about your communication and what do they need to feel about you, the message and the recommendations or options you may be offering?
  3. For example, if you speak with your boss about a raise or promotion, have you considered how this might make your boss feel? Are the facts and figures you'll share to support your ask organized and presented well? Do you have credibility and trust with your boss, making this ask a reasonable one?
  4. Consider the right timing for the conversation. Resist stopping your boss as they walk into an important meeting to ask about your career growth. How and where you have the conversation is important. Consider your boss' state of mind, attention span, other priorities and most receptive state to ensure a successful conversation. Discussing a problem you're having with a co-worker might work best over happy hour, but it could also be seen as inappropriate if your company has protocol for filing work complaints.
  5. Respect that your request may require consideration. If you're asking to be transferred to another office, for instance, your boss may need to consider budgets, timing and workload. They might not be able to give you an answer to your request on the spot. Or if you ask for additional time off to attend a professional development training and that program starts in a week, you could put your boss at a disadvantage if you force a quick decision. Steer clear of asking for something that requires a quick decision, if possible, to avoid being perceived as manipulating the situation for your own benefit.
  6. Speak professionally, but also with heart. Your boss is a human being first and a boss second. If you need to discuss your overwhelming workload, lack of resources or inability to meet a deadline, communicate to your boss as a person. Appeal to their understanding and compassion and always have a solution in mind for every problem you present.
  7. Assume your boss wants to see you succeed. Speak to them in a professional, organized and relatable way to ensure they receive the information in the best light. There may be variables you're not aware of that influence your boss' response, and you'll have to accept those.

Communicating with candor and compassion will go a long way in the civilian sector.

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