In the middle of a recession, the average worker is probably more focused on doing whatever's necessary to stay employed. Not showing up late, getting all your work done, bringing new ideas to the table and not making any major errors. Basically, not giving your boss a reason to fire you.
As good as those strategies are, they don't take into account the one person whose opinion really counts: the boss.
Being a good employee is an important part of avoiding layoffs, not just in a recession, but all the time. Plenty of other workers and job seekers can replace you if you're just doing the bare minimum. Not everyone can be your substitute if the boss has come to rely on you to be a part of his or her success.
Of course, you're probably thinking: Shouldn't I be more concerned with making myself look good?
You and the boss are the same ... kinda
You're not the boss, but you are a reflection of your boss, and it behooves you both to project a positive image, says Elizabeth Freedman, author of "101: Learning the Ropes of the Workplace Without Hanging Yourself."
"It's like the old Vidal Sassoon commercial -- if you don't look good, your boss doesn't look good," she says. And that idea extends beyond having your shirt tucked in and your pants ironed. "Make sure anything that represents the team -- whether it's an e-mail or a voice mail coming from you -- also reflects you and the boss in a professional, polished way."
Sometimes you know how to project the right image. Walking into a meeting with the high-level bosses and giving everyone a high five probably isn't the way to score points with anyone. But on other matters, find out what the boss wants. Better to ask now and make a good impression later than to mess up and earn an unfavorable reputation.
"You're the sidekick," Freedman says, "so delivering good work is really the best thing you can do for [him or her], and therefore, for you. What does it take to deliver good work? Or excellent work? Ask the boss! Try, 'What can I do to improve this?' or 'Is there anything I can do to take some work off your plate?' for starters."
Making the boss work for you
Improving the boss's image isn't just about making his or her life easier and earning pats on the back. The whole process involves better communication between both of you. Right now, at the beginning of this process, it might occur through the direct questions that Freedman suggests, but eventually it can become an understanding if you build the relationship. Rachelle J. Canter, author of "Make the Right Career Move," suggests that you become invaluable to the boss so that you're the default go-to person.
"Anticipate needs," Canter says. "The difference between good employees and great employees is that the latter don't just comply with requests well, they anticipate needs of their bosses and deliver above and beyond what the boss expects."
To get to that point, you need to be direct, and that means being prepared to ask the right questions.
"When you do something, check in with the boss to ensure that you really helped him or her out -- don't assume you did," Canter recommends.
You and the boss are not the same
At the end of the day, however, your boss is the boss and you are the employee. That doesn't just mean you take orders; it means you're an individual worker being judged on your own merits. All of the above tips can help your career, but Paul R. Damiano doesn't want employees to lose perspective, either. Damiano, an organizational psychologist for Good Works Consulting, stresses the importance of focusing on your own path before taking on additional responsibilities.
"It may be counterintuitive, but if you really want to help your own career and boost your boss's reputation, the best thing you can do is to boost your own reputation first," he says. "Your boss is ultimately judged not by [his or her] individual performance, but how well [his or her] people perform. Being the most effective employee you can be is therefore the best way to help make your boss look good."
Effective might mean anticipating the needs of others, as Canter recommends, or it might mean fulfilling your job description in the fullest way possible -- perhaps in a way no one else has before. You don't have to necessarily pick up someone else's job duties; you can redefine what it is that you do.
Damiano stresses that self preservation matters because you can control only your own actions, not your boss's. A boss who will take credit for your work will do it regardless of anything you do, he says. Looking out for your boss doesn't mean you have to lose focus on your interests. After all, you can't make anyone else look good if you can't even do your own job well.
Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for CareerBuilder.com and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/abalderrama.