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Management seminar in reverse - learning to 'manage the boss'

At GenRad Inc., some midlevel managers are being trained to ''manage the boss.'' Seem a little unlikely? Well, the company is offering a series of seminars designed to improve communications with higher-level managers. The benefit? An expected increase in corporate efficiency.

Peter Fairchild of GenRad's personnel training office explains it this way:

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At GenRad, which designs and produces testing equipment for printed circuits, bosses and work groups are constantly being reorganized as new technologies are developed and new products are designed. Because bosses and work groups are always shifting, workers need to cultivate quick ways of ''getting to know you.''

''There is sometimes a need for the midlevel manager to say 'no' to his boss, '' Mr. Fairchild explains. ''We hope these sessions will . . . give assistance to employees in situations where they need to say 'no.' ''

For example, in a high-tech company like GenRad, an employee may have to tell the boss ''no'' to keep an inadequately developed product from being put on the market prematurely. If the boss pushes ahead too fast, the firm's reputation can be impaired, Fairchild says.

The atmosphere is relaxed as 20 midlevel managers take their seats at a ''how to manage your boss'' seminar. This discussion is led by Bob Mezoff of ODP Associates, a consulting group. Using workbooks and slides, he relays his message: Much of the problem is related to mutual misperception between bosses and subordinates.

Dr. Mezoff cites research that gives one explanation for this misperception. While bosses at almost every level believe they leave their doors open for communication from subordinates, they also say their own bosses are not receptive to advice from below.

At this moment, Mezoff interjects the old adage, ''A picture is worth a thousand words.'' Flashed on the wall is a full-color image of a nervous cat hopping on and then, even more quickly, hopping off of a piping-hot woodstove. This, Mezoff says, illustrates ''the burned-cat syndrome.'' Just as the cat is reluctant to venture back onto the stove, a subordinate who is rebuffed once or twice by his boss tends to be intimidated and discouraged from further attempts to communicate, he says.

GenRad's Fairchild says the trainees will continue to meet for a year. The benefits are still unknown, but he says the firm hopes the seminars will encourage communication up and down the line.

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