We all have had terrible bosses, incompetent and or toxic. Tales of our worst bosses make it an excellent topic for sharing with friends and colleagues. It sounds so familiar because most of us have had trouble with bosses at some point in our careers. There is even the old saying that employees quit their managers, not their jobs. But calling it quits without learning from the experience of managing our manager is letting a crisis go to waste. Even if we never stay with our boss that long due to the constant organizational shifts, learning how to manage our manager effectively is a great career decision. And if it doesn’t work, we can walk away knowing we made our best effort.
By its nature, the relationship between a manager and a direct report is complex and multi-layered. The organization’s needs, culture, and role expectations are on one side. On the other, the web of social interactions required to get the work done and how people react to each other.
A manager’s role is very demanding. Bosses have difficult jobs dealing with challenging and sometimes conflictive responsibilities, such as aligning tactical and strategic goals and leading a diverse workforce with different personalities, aspirations, and needs, on top of the shifting nature of external environmental threats and opportunities. They also have bosses to manage who sometimes give them unclear directives, and they need to figure out how to reconcile these mixed messages while being in the spotlight.
There are various reasons why it is difficult to deal with bosses. Some people feel tense in the presence of a boss. Others need help dealing comfortably with authority and being open to coaching or direction from bosses. Some are overdependent on bosses and high-status figures for advice and counsel. Some others had terrible experiences with bosses and, without knowing, kept projecting their traumas onto other authority figures throughout their careers. Family and cultural influences also impact how we manage our bosses.
The SCARF Model can help us understand why we are at least careful with the person whose formal role in the organization gives them the prerogative to hire us, fire us, promote us, demote us, train us, or not. If it is critical, why not increase cooperation and collaboration with those who influence our careers, even when we disagree how they operate?
Here are four reasons why managing your manager is a good career move:
- You can take control of your career by proactively taking responsibility for your situation versus blaming circumstances, conditions, and others for your struggles.
- Developing a relationship of mutual respect and trust makes it more satisfying to get the work done, and you will obtain more support and sponsorship for your career goals in the long term.
- Your manager needs your expertise, support, and cooperation to achieve their goals. Managing your manager is mutually beneficial.
- You need your manager to link you to the rest of the organization, help you prioritize your workload, and access critical resources so you can get results that matter.
According to Mary Abbajay, Managing Up “is a conscious strategic choice to build a robust working relationship with your boss, supervisor, or anyone above you in the food chain.”
In Abbajay’s book, she suggests a 3-step approach to manage-up effectively: 1) Know your manager; 2) Know yourself; and 3) Identify the gaps. Amy Gallo, the host of the HBR Podcast Women at Work, offers a similar approach in her episode titled: The Essentials: Managing Up, packed with practices that have helped her guests to achieve career success while learning even from terrible bosses.
I have extracted eight tips to MANAGE UP from these and other sources.
- Manage Your Expectations: It is not realistic that you can make your manager change. Instead, shift the energy toward managing yourself, recognizing your triggers, and being proactive about better responding to different situations.
- Assess the Relationship: Recognize what is working with your boss and the opportunities ahead. Identify similarities between you and your manager and articulate them to build common ground during conversations.
- Navigate the Discomfort: You grow more by being outside of your comfort zone. Your manager’ style may be very different from yours. If you are more open and coachable, you will become more resilient by adapting and learning from different leadership approaches, even if you don’t like them.
- Adapt your Style: Consider how your boss processes information and makes decisions. Be flexible to suit your manager’s work preferences. For example, if they are more task-oriented than you, focus more on the work. If they go straight to the point, learn to be more concise.
- Get to know your manager: You will likely see your manager in various settings, such as client meetings, presentations, one-on-ones, negotiations, etc. Understand their working style, approaches, outlook, aspirations, leadership philosophy, communication style, and pep peeps. You will be more successful communicating and advocating when you know how to approach your boss better.
- Expect Positive Intent: When your manager doesn’t respond as you would expect them to, don’t immediately judge them. Judging keeps you trapped in negativity and limits access to your best thinking on strategizing how to improve your relationship. Learn to depersonalize and be neutral, separating the person from the boss role the person is in.
- Unfold Your Ideas: Your one-on-ones are prime times to inform your manager about your value and outlook. Communicate your wins and contributions, bringing more solutions than problems. Let them know how much is on your plate and be willing to ask for clarification on priorities, and renegotiate deadlines when you are at maximum capacity.
- Perform Consistently: Becoming trustworthy, results-driven, and reliable is the best way to soften the relationship with your manager. Relationships only prosper if there is equity built in. You need your manager to succeed, but they also require you to produce good work.
The quality of your relationship with your boss can determine how satisfied and productive you are at work and how much you can advance. You can control yourself while you don’t get to choose your manager and how they should be and act. Increase your circle of influence by intentionally seeking to improve your relationship.
As Mary Abbajay asserts: “Managing Up it’s a conscious strategic choice. When you manage up effectively, your relationship with your boss works for you, for your boss, and the organization”. Truly a win-win for all the parties involved.