No bad bosses: the art of managing your manager

By Dan Wyant

Movies, television and literature portray a wide variety of unpleasant bosses. Remember Miranda Priestley (played by Meryl Streep) in “The Devil Wears Prada”? Or how about Bill Lumbergh in “Office Space?” Or Ebenezer Scrooge before he hangs out with the ghosts on that fateful Christmas Eve?

Although I’ve been fortunate to have had excellent bosses, I know others aren’t as lucky. Many people deal with managers who are unsympathetic, micromanaging and worse. Still, when it comes to influencing relationships with bosses, I believe employees have more control than they might think. Here are some best practices I recommend:

  1. Think of your boss as an advocate, not an adversary. This is about having the right mindset. Some people enter the manager-subordinate relationship feeling intimidated or fearful. And granted, there may be contrasting philosophies or personalities that could generate some trepidation. Yet your boss should be a resource for you — and you should utilize that resource. Your boss should paint a picture of the organization’s vision, direction and how you fit in. If that’s not happening (they may be too busy or have poor communication skills), you may have to initiate the conversation. But having the right attitude about the boss-employee relationship from the get-go is critical.
  2. Proactively communicate. This segues from the point above. Often I’ve seen employees who want to be told what to do or those who don’t understand their organization’s mission. If you’re in the dark, it’s your responsibility to seek answers. The same applies to your performance. People tend to wait for their annual reviews, but why not ask periodically “How am I doing?” The boss has an obligation to sit down and talk to you. Some supervisors are better than others at this; but if it’s not happening, be proactive.
  3. Try to understand your boss. By this, I mean, recognize your boss’s temperament, strengths and weaknesses. For example, suppose your boss is someone who organized, likes structure, and prefers strict adherence to deadlines. Or perhaps your boss has a strong need to interact with others, is a big-picture thinker and may have difficulty with details. Identifying — and respecting — their personality preferences will help you interact more effectively. It will also enable you to see how your particular strengths and skills can be complementary.
  4. Help your boss understand you. Conversely, explain what makes you tick. Communicate your strengths, weaknesses, goals, interests — and how you prefer to be managed. A lot of times the boss doesn’t know what you’re passionate about. By opening up, you’ll stand a better chance of being exposed to opportunities and assignments that align with your abilities and temperament.
  5. Make your boss look good. Show interest in his or her career. This is not about sucking up, but being genuinely interested in their success. When you do that, I think the returns come back to you in spades. If your boss is successful, the organization is successful — and, in my experience, it opens doors for you. It’s a symbiotic relationship. On a number of occasions when my boss was promoted, I was also brought along because of the good work we did as a team.
  6. Give your boss advice. Provide solutions, not complaints. As a boss myself, I really admire people who come to me with suggestions rather than just pointing out a problem. Granted, supervisors may not always agree with your recommendations, and if possible, they should explain why. Once a decision is made, you have to get on the team. Don’t make it personal. Move on. Still, by being a proactive problem-solver, you’ll win respect, especially if you do it in a positive manner. In contrast, if you’re always whining and looking on the dark side, your boss (and others) will probably try to avoid asking your opinion.
  7. Keep your promises. Do what you say you’re going to do. This is the very essence of leadership, and a fundamental piece of building trust — not only between bosses and subordinates, but in any relationship. If you say you’re going to take responsibility for a project, do it. Realize that if you commit and then break your word later, you’re doing serious damage to the relationship.
  8. No surprises. Be transparent. If you make mistakes, own up to them. If you realize that you’re going to miss a deadline for whatever reason, give your boss a heads up. If you have too much on your plate and are struggling to do quality work, talk to your boss. If there’s a controversial decision — such as bringing on a new client who could strain your company’s capacity in some way or one who has business practices that might be at odds with your company’s values — touch base with your supervisor. Bottom line, bosses don’t want to caught off guard — at least, not with a negative surprise.
  9. Do your best. Take responsibility. Be on time for meetings, and then pay attention rather than stealing glances at your smartphone. Show interest in colleagues outside your own department. Be a positive influence. Help out. Granted, you don’t have to participate in every special event or project, but you do need to be engaged.
  10. Find a way to have fun. I’m not talking about being the class clown or cutting corners because you’re too busy playing to work hard. By having fun, I mean approach your work with a sense of humor, find joy in what you do. It pays off in more ways than you might imagine. In fact, research has shown that a sense of humor has a host of benefits — from improving communications and relationships to boosting your health and productivity.

The idea of managing your boss may sound like manipulation. Yet it’s really about engagement, unambiguous communications and being a successful employee. Doing so will improve your productivity — and more important, your quality of life.


Dan Wyant
President and Chief Operating Officer
 |  
“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, president and chief operating officer of the Edward Lowe Foundation. “If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. To send Dan comments,   click here.
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