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28 Tips for Managing Your Manager

Bob Little 

June 3, 2016

It can be wonderful to work for a thoughtful, caring, considerate, encouraging, empowering, and inspiring boss. Sadly, this isn’t something that’s granted to everyone.

It doesn’t take long for everyone to realize that achieving this state of work-related bliss is far easier said than done. Ignorant, ineffective, inefficient, and self-serving bosses aren’t unknown.

In their defense, bosses may be under extreme pressure to perform well and produce results that are close to being unrealistic. This can make them introspective and selfish, seemingly capricious and unpredictable.

Yet, if you want to maximize your job satisfaction throughout your career, cultivating a positive, healthy working relationship with your current boss can help. You’ll feel more fulfilled if you believe you’re working efficiently, communicating well with him or her, and doing your job in a way that makes his job easier – because that gives everyone more breathing room. Then, when you want to advance your career, having his respect and confidence is a huge benefit.

As a first step – according to the Harvard Business Review – having considered the type of boss you have, you must work out how to anticipate her needs. That involves understanding what motivates and annoys her. It also involves determining the most appropriate way to bring a problem to her – and how to disagree with her in the most positive, productive way.

It’s not necessarily about making friends with your boss, but it is about fostering and maintaining his on-going trust – even (maybe especially) if you feel that he doesn’t like you.

To help you understand your boss – and her needs – you should attempt to answer such questions as:

  • What is she ultimately trying to accomplish at this organization?
  • How does she measure success?
  • What does she think about failure?
  • What would she like more of (and less of) on a daily basis?
  • What frightens her?
  • What does she value most – both personally and professionally?
  • Does she seem to prefer communicating in person or via email?
  • Does she make decisions based more on data or on hunches?
  • How have past career experiences influenced what she does today?
  • What role does she foresee me playing in her plans?

Getting answers to these queries might involve asking your boss some questions. You should do this with a “curious but respectful” – rather than a “prying and gossipy” – attitude. When, having formed your view of him, you put into practice your “managing upwards” strategy, you should aim to be positive and supportive – rather than cynical and manipulative.

When done well, managing upwards results in both you and your boss working as an effective team to address problems before they get out of control and to achieve business goals. You stand a good chance of achieving this if you:

  • Understand your boss – know how she likes to communicate – for example, via email or verbally, via structured meetings or informal chats.
  • Make your boss look good – support your boss’s success and work around her weaknesses. Exposing her incompetence will only compound your misery and could even damage your reputation.
  • Remain engaged at work – focus on providing top performance, despite what you may be feeling.
  • Are objective – especially when presenting options.
  • Are specific about what you need, why you need it, and what’ll happen if you don’t get it. Don’t exaggerate – it’ll count against you in the long run.
  • Do what you agree to do – on time.
  • Never give your boss a reason to question your credibility – stay honest and objective.
  • Admit mistakes – quickly – and outline what you’re going to do to rectify them.

In addition, you shouldn’t:

  • Give your boss surprises – keep him informed of projects’ progress and issues.
  • Give problems to him that you should be solving.
  • Manage upwards at the expense of managing downwards. Don’t gamble with your career by keeping your boss happy while upsetting your team.
  • Waste his time.
  • Be obsequious and sycophantic – in the long term, honesty is the best policy for you, your boss, and your team.
  • Play office politics – especially where he is concerned.

However, don’t be bullied. Bullies get their power from those who respond by showing fear. If you’re doing the best job you can do, hold your head high and don’t give your boss the satisfaction of pushing you about. Ask questions, seek to understand, and work to defuse a difficult situation instead of cowering or responding angrily.

Bruce Tulgan, author of “It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss,” believes that the secret of managing upwards is to:

  • Establish ground rules from the beginning – notably how you’re going to stay in dialogue, how you’re going to set priorities on a day-to-day basis, and how you’re going to monitor, measure and document your performance. An open dialogue is key, he says, so be specific.
  • Be specific, to save time and avoid second-guessing. According to Tulgan, “When managers don’t spell out expectations, they think they’re empowering you, but a lot of times it’s false empowerment. You end up wasting a bunch of time and doing things wrong.”
  • Check priorities. This could involve keeping a time log for a few days and sharing it with your boss. This allows her to confirm you’re prioritizing tasks in line with her wishes.
  • Create standard procedures. Disclose exactly how you plan to handle common recurring issues and requests. This helps you to avoid continually nagging your boss for routine approvals. Tulgan recommends, “Take the initiative and write out your own step-by-step operating procedures – and run them by your boss.”

A Danish study of 4,500 public service workers has provided credence for the view that “people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers.” Bad bosses can suck all your enjoyment out of any job, and can leave you feeling undervalued and frustrated.

Your only hope to assuage this to any degree – as, perhaps, you note the things not to do when you’re the boss, and start thinking about your next career move – is to learn to manage your boss. When you decide to move on, do your research well – so that you won’t have to manage a bad boss in your next post.

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3 comments on “28 Tips for Managing Your Manager”:

  1. Hugo Heij wrote:

    Thanks for this insightful blog, which triggered a personal memory of mine, that might benefit others.

    For many years I had a hate/love relationship with my boss. We were never fighting, but there was a lot of clashing whenever we met. Then my coach suggested to ask him “What can I do to help you become more successful?” That single question changed everything. Initially he was stumped by the question, because he never had that question before. Then he started to articulate how I could help him, and that made all the difference.

  2. anand kumar suri wrote:

    its great insight regarding managing the Managers.

  3. Vicki wrote:

    What a shame “her” and “she” kept being used in the commentary – I have worked with some very challenging “he’s” and “him’s”.
    Unconscious bias maybe?