How to manage up?

If you’ve got a lousy boss right now you have my sympathy. Truly. It can really siphon the enjoyment from what might otherwise be a rewarding role, leave you feeling undervalued, and wondering whether you should begin searching for something new. But before you start planning an exit strategy, it would be wise to rethink how you can better manage the boss you already have –for all their flaws and shortcomings.

As an eternal optimist, I’ve learned bosses and even team members provide invaluable opportunities for developing executive leadership skills and learning ‘what not to do’ when managing people who work for you. You just have to be proactive in looking for them and ready to practice some real self-leadership.

If you find yourself in such a situation, you generally have two options. You could either grit your teeth and try to endure the uncertainty or you can try your hand at “managing up,” a concept that’s generated increasing attention over the last several years.

Quite simply, managing up refers to doing whatever you can to make your boss’s job easier by essentially managing your manager. However fixed in their ways your boss may be, you can always learn ways to better manage him or her. The secret is to “manage up” without them ever realizing you are doing it. So rather than think of your boss as your boss, think of them as a difficult client – one you have to figure out how to work with if you want to get ahead, even if you’d rather not.

Hopefully the strategies below will help you on your way. Underpinning each of them is a commitment to take responsibility for your own success, regardless of the different (and difficult) personalities you will inevitably have to encounter throughout your working life.

1. Know their ‘Why’: Identify prime motivations.

The better you understand what your boss does, and more importantly, why, the better positioned you are to deliver results, manage expectations, and avoid lose:lose situations. Try to put yourself in their shoes and see the world, and your workplace, as they might.

  • What does he care about?
  • What keeps him up at night?
  • What would he love more of and what would he love less of on a daily basis?
  • What frightens him?
  • How much importance does he place on impressing others?
  • How does he measure success and what does he think about failure?

When you know what drives your boss (even if your boss may not be fully conscious of it), you can speak to “his listening,” frame your opinions and use language in ways that line up with his core values, concerns and priorities.

2. Support their success: Work around their weaknesses.

While it may sound counter intuitive to support a bad boss in becoming more successful, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by making him look bad, going to war or facilitating his (or her) failure. If he is as bad as you think, he will likely do a pretty good job of that all by himself. Exposing his incompetence will only compound your own misery and may even damage your reputation.

One way is to help your boss focus on his natural strengths. Another is to proactively work around his weaknesses. If you know you have a boss who’s disorganized, then help him to be on top of things rather than whining about his lack of organizational skills. If you know your boss is often late to meetings, offer to kick off the next meeting for him. If he tends to change his mind frequently, or is outright forgetful, be sure to document interactions so you can refer back to them if he ever contradicts himself. If you know your boss is slow to respond, continue to work on a project while you wait to hear back from him. Making yourself indispensable and someone your boss can rely on to help him do his job is a valuable asset when you start to look to ‘what’s next?’

By doing what you can to help your boss succeed, you lay a solid foundation for greater success yourself. It may not be an immediate reward, but in the long run, you can never lose by helping others do better than they otherwise would.

3. Take the high road: Your “Personal Brand” is riding on it.

Never let your boss’s bad behavior be an excuse for your own. All too often, people start feeling entitled to slack off, take longer and longer lunches, lose interest or stop performing well because of their bad boss. Don’t do it. Keep your mind focused on top performance. Complain to your spouse or your friends all you want, but when in the office or workplace, stay upbeat and engaged. Actually handling a difficult boss well can really set you apart. You never know who is watching or listening but be assured, people who can open or close future opportunities for you are doing just that!

While it may be easy to succumb to resentment or resignation and mentally check out of your job, doing so not only undermines your own integrity but it can put you at risk of being branded as whiner, a slacker, or both. So if your boss is a shouter, don’t react by shouting back. If they are petty or small minded, don’t descend to smallness yourself (however tempting!) Rather maintain a calm and professional demeanour in dealing with your difficult boss. As Gandhi wrote “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In this case, act like the leader you wish your boss was.

If you feel you’ve run out of options for dealing with him reasonably, then don’t go rumor-mongering or bad-mouthing him to everyone within earshot. That will ultimately say more about you than it does about your boss (and not things you’d want said!) Rather, follow proper procedures for registering complaints with Human Resources or with higher-level superiors, documenting each step of the way.

4. Know their preferences: Adapt to them.

Observe your boss’s behavioral style, preferences and pet peeves. Is he fast-paced and quick to make decisions? Is he slow to think about things, needing time to process information? How does he like to communicate – via e-mail, in person drop-ins, or lengthy memos? The more you can match your style to your boss’s style when communicating, the more he will really hear what you’re saying.

If you’ve ever done any personality assessments such as Myers-Briggs or DISC, then see if your boss has as well and find out what they are. It can help you adapt your style and spare a lot of strain. Working with his preferences is an obvious way of managing your boss without his ever knowing it, and it’s a key leadership skill to develop regardless of the kind of boss you are working for.

5. Learning how to be a well-rounded source of help

When you establish a trusting relationship with your boss, they may start turning to you for help whenever the need arises. Figure out the areas that your boss struggles with most frequently, and do your best to position yourself as someone who can always pick up the slack when needed. The easier you’re able to make your boss’s job, the easier your own will become.

Remember, managing up doesn’t involve being a suck up. That’s easily detectable and, despite your best intentions, may do more harm than good to your relationship.

But by managing up effectively, you’re bound to get on your boss’s good side. Not only will they respect the effort you’re putting into making their job easier, they’ll recognize your forward-thinking capabilities and keep you in mind the next time a promotion opens up. And, of course, your own job will become more enjoyable as well.

Check out my related post: Could your next boss be a teenager?


Interesting reads:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-right-and-wrong-way-to-manage-up-at-the-office-1523366792

https://www.tinypulse.com/blog/what-does-it-mean-to-manage-up

https://hbr.org/2015/01/what-everyone-should-know-about-managing-up

https://www.themuse.com/advice/10-brilliant-tips-for-dealing-with-a-difficult-boss

https://work.chron.com/handle-boss-wont-fix-problems-3476.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/margiewarrell/2014/01/20/6-strategies-to-hanhandldling-a-bad-boss/#2e59782d6ea0

https://hbr.org/2018/09/what-to-do-when-you-have-a-bad-boss

https://www.themuse.com/advice/10-ways-to-get-your-boss-to-trust-you-completely

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