How to manage your boss
Master these three tactics to optimize your relationships with superiors.
Flip through management literature and you will find countless articles and resources devoted to managing down: getting direct reports to achieve the results desired by management. But what about managing your boss? The pyramidal structure of organizations suggests that more managing up occurs on a daily basis than managing down, so it’s invaluable to do it with purpose.
To manage your boss you should:
- Understand his or her strengths, weaknesses, goals, and work style
- Assess yourself in those areas
- Use that information to optimize your relationship and communication.
This relationship is one of mutual dependence: your boss needs dependability and honesty from you, while you rely on your boss for accessing resources, establishing priorities, and connecting to other departments. Because the power balance tilts in your boss’s favor, it falls on you to manage the relationship.
First, know exactly what the boss expects of you, and do at least that. This can be as broad as “grow the company” or precisely detailed in an elaborate job description. It is critical that this be affirmed verbally and in writing, and then updated whenever necessary. Communicate both achievements and failures with transparency, and proactively send updates at a frequency that suits your boss. This transparency alone can dramatically improve many relationships by erasing questions about performance and dedication.
Once you have established trust, dig deeper. Understand your company’s stated goals, its organizational structure, and where you and your boss fit in. Then look for subtler cues. Monitor the things that impact or interest your boss most: budgets, schedules, relations with a certain client or department. Give those priority in your updates.
Strategize your communications—optimize their frequency, timing, and media choice. If the boss likes to keep her finger on the pulse, update frequently; if she is a delegator, less often. Determine whether quick morning one-on-ones are best, or if the evening is a more relaxed time to catch up. Business guru Peter Drucker divides people into “readers” or “listeners”; determine your boss’s preferred medium and adjust accordingly. Read Guide to Managerial Communication by Mary Munter and Lynn Hamilton or similar books on communication. A few hours of interesting reading can save days’ worth of otherwise-inexplicable aggravation. While you’re at it, read Managing Your Boss by Gabarro and Kotter, the Harvard Business Review classic drawn upon in this column.
Understand basic personality psychology, and put it to use. Taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and Big Five personality test can be extremely useful in improving any relationship. Most of us think we know ourselves well, but these tests can serve as an enlightening, unbiased mirror that shines light on our blind spots. For example, a common communication issue, especially among us in technical fields, is providing too much or too little detail. The MBTI test identifies a details-oriented person as an “S” or sensing type, while an “N” (intuitive) type prefers fewer details. Knowing where you (and your boss) fall on the spectrum is informative if you suspect you’re giving too much or too little detail. Respect your boss’s privacy; if you don’t think he will want to take the tests, it can be even more informative to guess his personality type.
Don’t pick fights
Though your relationship is one of interdependence, the boss is usually less dependent on you than the other way around. This can naturally and understandably frustrate the subordinate, especially if the boss is seen as acting unfairly.
Left unchecked, this frustration can grow cancerously in the subordinate’s mind until the boss is eventually seen as a kind of institutional enemy, an impediment to progress that must be avoided (or even defeated). Gabarro and Kotter call this counter-dependent behavior, and it can disrupt an entire office. I’ve seen this firsthand: After a making a series of honest and naïve mistakes, an employee felt slighted by his boss’s reprimands. It could be argued that his feelings were completely justified, but it didn’t matter once he took on a sullen, complacent attitude. He became ever more estranged and was eventually terminated. At the other extreme is over-dependent behavior, which is self-explanatory and should similarly be avoided.
Contrary to the plots in Netflix’s “House of Cards,” progress is more readily achieved with cooperation than with sabotage. Managers are fallible and human, and typically busy. So take it upon yourself to be proactive and you, the boss, and the entire organization will reap the rewards.
Adam Forni is a project manager at Bloom Energy. He has managed major sustainability projects for Fortune 100 companies and holds an MBA from the University of California, Irvine. He is a 2013 40 Under 40 winner.