We all know how miserable bad bosses can make us feel and how difficult our working environment can be as a result. However, we need to learn how to manage this very important dynamic because it is our responsibility to make this relationship work. Doing so plays an important role in our job satisfaction, job engagement and career. Having worked with quite a few bosses in my career, has given me more than my fair share of tricks to cope.
Managing up is a skill that can enhance teamwork between you and your boss, enabling you to achieve bigger and better things together by keeping each other informed to effectively solve problems and develop synergy.
If not done properly, managing up has a tendency to backfire. Which is why the concept has to be very clear in your mind before you apply it. The goal is to have a healthy, positive and productive working relationship. It is not the promotion of self-interest or manipulation to move up the corporate ladder. It is not an alternative to doing a good job.
For the purpose of this discussion, I will be using the male pronoun without prejudice to the countless of women bosses out there.
There are different scenarios we must be prepared for when managing up:
If you’re meeting a new boss: observe him thoroughly. Get to know what makes him tick or what ticks him off. Learn how he wants to be supported. Get to know his agenda.
If you’re working with a virtual boss: set regular cadence meetings with a clear agenda and agree on the form and frequency of communication. Leverage on all the technology available to personalize the virtual working environment. Set aside a few minutes to touch base on your personal life before going to the meeting proper. Be very clear about goals and objectives that needs to be achieved so that even though you’re interacting with your boss remotely, you are certain you are doing what is deemed important.
If you’re working with an insecure or incompetent boss: understand the root cause for their insecurities and incompetence. Don’t get them on the defensive, privately discuss your concerns but frame it positively. Find a way to first highlight strengths and wins before moving on to areas of improvement. Don’t pander or flatter, it rings hollow and could backfire. Sell your ideas by highlighting the benefits to the company instead of possible repercussions to your boss if your recommendations are not followed.
If you’re working with an indecisive boss: define the problem thoroughly so that the solution becomes self-evident. Break down the decision into small ones. For example, if you’re pitching for automation, be prepared with all the pros and cons. Instead of asking for approval for a provider, ask for clearance to get a work breakdown structure from the leading provider you wish to engage.
If you’re working for a micromanager: take control of the situation. Ask what he wants you to do and how he wants you to do it. Ask how often he wants to be updated about the progress report. Be prepared to give up your autonomy for a long while until you earn his respect and he gives you a little bit of leeway. And then ask about the leeway he is giving you, ask about what limit of authority you have. The goal is to make your boss feel in control.
If you’re working for a clueless, passive boss: he might have no idea what you do that’s why when you ask for recommendations or directions, you get vague generalizations for answers that confounds rather than clarifies. To work through this, give your boss an opportunity to get to know what you do by walking him through projects you’re working on as an overview. Involve him by giving him status updates periodically. If he still fails to engage, learn to manage yourself or talk to your next level boss to align your priorities with the bigger picture.
If you’re working for a slave driver: break down projects, come up with very detailed timelines, Gantt Charts, Time and Motion Studies, numbers, figures, trends. Do everything you can think of to force a more realistic deadline or a sales or production goal.
If you’re dealing with meanie: be assertive. Address the bullying head-on. It might not work but at least you will have your dignity intact. If it goes out of hand you can always take it to HR or your next-level boss. Frame it as a dynamic instead of an accusation, use I-statements: “I seem to be getting a lot of negative feedback from you about how this project should turn out. I’d like a few minutes of your time for clarification so I can align my work priorities.”
Managing up is a non-negotiable, inevitable part of working for someone whether you’re working for a large corporation or a small business. We all do it whether we are aware of it or not. It’s a lot better to be actively conscious of the dynamic and be proactive enough about it so that you can take matters into your own hands and define for yourself how you want your relationship with your boss to look like. While we cannot choose our boss, we can always choose how we respond to them, so manage up!