Managing Your Boss
Developing an Effective Working Relationship
Not only does your boss manage the everyday things that you do, he or she is the gatekeeper to many of the things you want. He or she controls items as significant as work assignments, promotions, increases in compensation... and more.
Aside from this, bosses also have a great impact on your everyday satisfaction: things like how they speak to you and the rest of your colleagues; whether you have to make an appointment to talk to them; and how rapidly and in how much detail they respond to your requests for input. All have a huge influence on whether you feel you have a "good" boss or not.
Although your boss is, well, your boss, this doesn't mean that he or she is the only one who can determine the nature of how the two of you work together. Just as you need to find out how your boss likes to operate, you can also do a lot to show him or her how you like to operate. And a good boss will be able to adapt his or her way of working accordingly, so that you can achieve more together. After all, this is good for both of your careers.
Making the Relationship Work
Having said that, you, as the subordinate need to shoulder much of the responsibility for shaping how you work together. Your boss has other working relationships to manage, so managing his or her relationship with you may not be at the top of his or her list. However, it should be at the top of yours!
You have to actively build the relationship – or else it has the potential to run right over you. Your boss' motives may or may not be aligned with what you want to get out of your career. When you're blessed with a naturally supportive and motivating boss, then building this relationship is not so much an effort as it is a joy. On the other hand, when you encounter a difficult boss (and you probably will!), or even just an inexperienced or poor boss, you need to draw on some key skills that will help you make the relationship work.
Yes, it's not actually possible to manage your boss – that's clearly the other way round. But what you can do is manage your side of the relationship with your boss, and that's what we're talking about here.
Strategies for "Managing" Your Boss
1. Accept That Your Boss Is Your Boss
The first step in managing the relationship is to accept it. Failing to accept this is a problem that many ambitious people have, particularly if the boss is younger or comes from a traditionally disadvantaged group.
Your boss has the power and authority to direct your work. This is what you agreed to when you accepted your job, and it's why you get your paycheck.
You have to deal with him or her and make the best of the situation, so you need to get over any problems you have. So check your ego and "attitude" at the door – even if you think you should have been the boss, you're not!
It happens quite frequently that people are promoted to team management roles because they have spent a certain number of years in a technical role, or reached the top grade for that role. Unfortunately, skill in a technical area doesn't mean that they have any natural aptitude for, or even interest in being a manager. This concept of "being promoted to the level of incompetence" is known as the "Peter Principle", after a book of the same name by Raymond Hull and Laurence J Peter, and is most common in large, highly hierarchical organizations.
If you have a boss who falls into this category, use the strategies below to help them become competent rather than bemoaning their incompetence. And if you succeed, it will reflect well on you.
2. Allow Your Boss to Make Mistakes
Even good bosses are not perfect, but neither are you. When you expect too much from your boss, he or she can only disappoint you. Keep things in perspective!
Everyone has to have a first experience of managing others, but it would be asking a lot to expect all new managers to get everything right from day one. So look for opportunities to pass on tactfully your experiences of being well-managed (if you have any!) with a first-time boss.
If your boss isn't quite on top of things in team meetings, for instance, and forgets to appoint someone to take responsibility for a key action, try asking "Who would you like to do that?" Wording your question in this way implies helpfulness, and doesn't carry any overt criticism.
3. Understand Your Boss's Management Style
There are many different, natural styles of management. Some are better than others in certain situations and for certain people. The problem is figuring out what works best when, and for whom. Recognize that your boss may be struggling with that exact issue with regards to managing you.
Try to adapt your needs and reactions to your boss's style and understand your own preferred style as both a subordinate and in managing the relationship with your boss. Here are some questions that will get you thinking about your boss's preferred way of working with others:
- How does your boss like to receive information? (for example, memos, email, or face to face)
- How does your boss set out his or her expectations?
- What are your boss' specific expectations of you in terms of productivity, results, dress, demeanor, and so on?
- What type of communicator is your boss?
- How does he/she handle bad news or unexpected events?
- How does he/she react to his or her own boss?
- How does your boss communicate disappointment?
- Does he/she prefer things "by-the-book" or is there a lot of room for adaptation?
- Does he/she prefer conformity or innovation?
- Does your boss micromanage or provide too few directions?
By knowing what type of management style your boss uses, and understanding the type of style you prefer, you can start to uncover any sources of disagreement and dysfunction and hopefully do something about them.
Another tip is to examine what it is your boss appreciates in his subordinates (how do the "chosen ones" act?) and then try to develop some of those attributes.
For a more information about the different types of ways people lead and manage, see our article on leadership styles.
4. Make Your Boss Look Good
Everyone responds to praise. When you perform in ways that make your boss look good, he or she will get praise from people higher up in the organization, and will hopefully make a mental note of what a "good" person you are to have working for them.
- Solve problems effectively (see our problem solving section).
- If you're asked to do something important that seems impossible, do your level best to think creatively (see our article on Dealing With Unreasonable Requests for tips).
- If you can't solve a problem yourself, make sure you have a proposed solution when you go to your boss for help.
- Meet your deadlines, or if you're going to miss them, make sure your boss knows well in advance and knows why you're not able to meet them.
- Produce truly outstanding results.
- Do your job in such a way that leaves little room for complaint.
- Never criticize your boss – the word WILL eventually get back to him or her.
- Demonstrate loyalty and commitment.
The flip side of this is never to do anything that makes your boss look bad, and not to behave in such a way that he or she has to defend you. After all, if you do something your boss has to defend, other people in the organization will be wondering why he/she is not controlling what's going on within his/her team.
5. Keep Your Boss in the Loop
For a boss to do his job well, he needs reliable and valid information. The people who feed him this information are usually highly valued. And no one, bosses included, likes "nasty surprises".
- Help your boss stay up to date on relevant issues, projects, and changes.
- Do not suppress bad news – give him or her time to evaluate, respond and possibly make corrections.
- Come with solutions to potential problems – this helps him or her to formulate great plans.
- Don't put things off. If you feel something isn't going well, talk to your boss at the first available opportunity so that you avoid getting into a situation where you boss says "I wish you'd told me about this six weeks ago, but now we've run out of time to do much about it before next week's meeting."
- Make sure you talk to your boss at appropriate intervals about your career development interests and aspirations. Most bosses will be pleased to help you progress, but they can't do this if they don't know what you want. Equally, they will be better able to manage the make-up of the team in an ongoing way if they know who is interested in moving on.
6. Compensate for Your Boss's Weaknesses
You and your boss may well be in the positions you're in because you have different strengths (and weaknesses). Particularly when you yourself don't manage a team, you are likely to be focused on details and completing quite technical tasks. Your boss, on the other hand, will be handling a much broader set of tasks and people at a higher level.
But there are times when you still need your boss to "do detail". Perhaps you need a decision from him or her about which option to take in a project. Yet even if your boss likes getting this kind of information by email, he or she may have been wrapped up in so many meetings that the message has been overlooked.
Don't assume that your boss will have this under control. A gentle reminder (ideally using a different communication method such as a quick conversation or even a Post-It note on the desk) that you need the decision by such and such a date will help your boss to keep your project to schedule. And ultimately this is in your boss's interests too.
Other things that you can do to help your boss stay focused on his or her main priorities include:
- Providing a draft or straw man of some work they need to do, such as the Agenda for the team meeting on Friday. Check that your boss likes this approach, of course, but most people find it easier to edit an existing document than start from scratch.
- Prioritizing or scheduling things you need your boss to do. Lots of different people will be making demands on his or her time, so help your boss by prioritizing yours. That way, all he or she needs to do is fit your needs in with those of your colleagues.
Your job description will tell you WHAT your boss needs you to do, but it won't tell you HOW he or she would like your working relationship to operate. You need to know what your boss wants, and your boss needs to know what you want from him or her. The best person to ensure that both of you find this out is you. After all, your boss probably manages several other people, but you can be more focused as you only have the one boss.
As well as helping you both understand the way you like to work, you will keep your boss on your side by keeping them informed, making them look good to others, and compensating for their weaknesses. And if you have more experience of being managed than they have of managing, you can also politely nudge them in the direction of good practice.