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3 Ways to Deal with Conservative Local Bosses in Singapore

how to deal with conservative bosses

Joanne Poh

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Anyone who’s worked for a Singapore company knows the horrors of trying to deal with a Conservative Local Boss. Conventional career advice exhorting employees to speak up whenever they can and warning against bringing work home has nothing on the Conservative Local Boss.

The Conservative Local Boss typically works at an SME and is in his or her mid 40s or older. He is often heard complaining about how young people these days have too many choices, unlike him when he was a struggling fresh grad. Back then, he’ll have you know, when his boss told him to stay till 4am, he did so even those his mother was on her deathbed.

In the world of the Conservative Local Boss, employees should be seen, not heard—and seen for long hours throughout the day, at that. Leaving the office before the Conservative Local Boss has hung up his tie and skipped off to the golf course is a surefire way to a scathing performance appraisal.

No matter how ridiculously inefficient your workplace is, resist bringing this up to the Conservative Local Boss. Not only will he take your comments as a personal affront, he doesn’t really care if things are done inefficiently—after all, that’s nothing longer hours at the office won’t fix.

If you want to make it as an employee in a Singapore SME, you’ll have to find a way to deal with your Conservative Local Boss. Here are three tactics that will serve you well.

1. Ask if he needs you to do anything before leaving the office

The Conservative Local Boss is the main reason Singapore employees work the longest hours in the world. He believes you have to show dedication by “putting in the hours”, and no matter how good your work is, you won’t score any points in his book if you’re not at your desk when he leaves.

If you’re genuinely willing to work pointlessly long hours even if your workload can easily be handled between the hours of 9 to 6, then good for you. But if you don’t want to do so, you’re going to have to interact a little more with your boss than you might like.

See, Conservative Local Bosses want their employees sitting around at all hours of the day and night in case they think of something they need them to do at the last minute. It’s the reason people choose to hire live-in maids instead of just getting someone to come in once a day.

I’ve learnt the hard way that no matter how efficient a worker you are, if you leave on the dot every day, the Conservative Local Boss will not see you as a more productive worker than those who spend the entire day walking around the office chatting with their colleagues and then stay back till 10pm. To the Conservative Local Boss, if you’re not there, you’re not working.

This can be alleviated to a certain degree by making sure you communicate closely with your boss during office hours. When the end of the day is approaching, ensure that you submit your work to your boss in a pointed manner so he knows you’ve done all the tasks assigned to you for the day. And when you’re about to leave the office, instead of sneaking off as most employees are wont to do, a tactic that will be noticed by your boss and most definitely resented, knock on his door and say:

“So I’ve done completed the report on xxx, which we’ll be presenting tomorrow morning. All the xxx documents have been drafted, and I’ll leave them on your desk for review. Just checking if there’s was anything else you wanted me to do today?”

Ending off your little speech in this manner can result in one of two things. First, it will force your boss to finally assign the work he’s been sitting on all day, rather than sending you an “urgent” email at 7pm only to discover you’ve left the office. Secondly, if there’s no work for the day, you’ll hear it directly from his lips, and he will likewise be reminded that you’ve very efficiently completed all your assigned tasks.

Finally, your boss might actually start to see you as an employee with “initiative”, since most Singapore workers are infamous for hiding behind their cubicle walls in a bid to lay low. All the better when you ask for that raise.

2. If you disagree, do it discreetly

The Conservative Local Boss maintains that you’re working for his company, and you have no business telling him that he’s doing it wrong—even if his poor management skills are costing the company thousands each year and forcing them to regularly rehire staff en masse.

If things at your company just aren’t working the way they should, or—worse—your boss is incompetent and expects his employees to fix things unbidden, raising issues and trying to drive some change might be the only way to make your working life bearable.

The way to do this is quite simple, and similar to the positive reinforcement approach used by new-age kindergarten teachers on their misbehaving charges. Before you suggest something needs to be changed or is being done wrong, acknowledge that your boss has done something right so as to cradle his fragile ego.

For instance, if your firm of ten consultants is drowning under a pile of paperwork because your boss refuses to hire more than one secretary, you can address the issue with a speech like the following:

“It was great working on x project. I really learnt a lot, due mostly to your guidance on x issue. So I would like to thank you for that. When I was working on the file, I noticed one thing that I think if improved could really help our team fulfil even more of its potential. It dawned on me that the consultants were actually doing a lot of the secretarial work themselves, and thought it would be really great if we could free up that time for more research.”

Notice how instead of going along the lines of “how the hell do you expect us to work when we have to spend hours at the photocopying machine?” we have turned our speech into “it was so great working on this project, but guess what, I have this great idea that may make things even better!”

You might think it sounds a little phony, but trust me on this, the Conservative Local Boss is like an annoying baby brother. Show your displeasure and he’ll do everything in his power to magnify your angst a thousandfold. If you actually care about the outcome of your feedback, you’ll have to coax him out of his shell by showering him with little nuggets of encouragement.

3. Learn as much as you can from him

Singapore bosses are often slammed for treating their employees are mere economic units and showing little interest in helping them grow for fear that they’ll upstage them one day.

Unfortunately, few employees realise that this can cut both ways—your boss is similarly an economic resource to you, and nothing more. Just as he tries to get as much out of you as he can on your salary, you get to use your time with the company in a way that benefits you most.

This means that instead of surfing Facebook all day at work, you should be actively trying to learn as much as you can in order to become an expert in your field.

For instance, Larry, who was featured in one of our previous posts, used a previous job to learn all he could about project management, which he was then able to use to his advantage when negotiating for a higher salary in his next job.

Shaun (not his real name), a 29 year old corporate lawyer, has saved so many legal documents from his previous jobs onto his hard drive that he now has a massive database of precedents that help him when he’s drafting just about any type of contract, deed or resolution. “I told myself that if my boss was going to merely use me as a peon, I would similarly milk my time with him for all it was worth.”

Taking an active role in learning as much as you can on the job has the added benefit of making you come across as engaged and eager to improve—qualities that will make you seem like a much better employee in the eyes of even the most difficult boss.

Have you ever had to deal with a Conservative Local Boss? Share your experiences in the comments!

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Joanne Poh

In my previous life, I was a property lawyer who spent most of my time struggling to get out of bed or stuck in peak hour traffic. These days, as a freelance commercial writer, I work in bed, on the beach, in parks and at cafes, all while being really frugal. I like helping other people save money so they can stop living lives they don't like.