Traditionally we think of the hierarchy in the workplace as top down, but if top down is making you tear your hair out, you may benefit from managing from the bottom up—guiding your boss from the trenches.
This week we're taking a peek into the book Working With You Is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself From Emotional Traps At Work by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster. The book covers quite a range of topics, like identifying the roles your boss and coworkers are playing, freeing yourself from your role, managing up to get a handle on a bad boss, and managing down to get a better handle on your team. Today we're taking a peek into the chapter "Managing Up—Taking Control" to highlight some techniques you can use to manage your boss and move your relationship away from a contemplating-vehicular-manslaughter one to an understanding and effective one.
Understanding the Origins of Bad Bosses and What it Takes to Manage Up
Unless your boss is such a jerk that he introduced to the rest of the staff on your first day by exclaiming "I eat pieces of #@*% like this for breakfast!", we can assume that even if you don't like your boss, he or she is more of the awkwardly incompetent variety than the outright-malicious kind. So where do all these bad bosses come from? Crowley and Elster emphasise that the key to managing your boss and having a harmonious office is understanding that your boss is likely as bewildered by managing as you are being managed by him/her. People often end up in management positions for three primary reasons, none of which have anything to do with management skills:
- Technical Expertise: Your boss might have been exceptionally good at his previous job, so somebody up the chain decided he would be good at managing the process. This kind of promotion ignores the fact that the world's best widget maker is probably not the world's best manager of widget makers.
- Seniority: If you stick around long enough without rocking the boat, there's a strong chance, in traditional corporations at least, you'll wake up one day managing a handful of people (or even departments).
- Political Reasons: No need to pretend that personal relationships, family ties, and other outside-the-office factors never influence promotions. At some point everyone has to work for the CEO's nephew; it's the nature of the business universe.
So where does that leave you? If you're still reading, there's a big chance that it leaves you unhappy. You're in a position where you're being managed by a boss with lackluster capabilities and, in ways big or small, it's impeding your ability to do your job and grow at your job. You're not completely powerless, though, and that's where managing up comes in. Photo by arte ram.
To successfully manage up and influence your boss for the better, you need to be willing to accept that your boss has limitations on what she can do (just like you do) and that you are as much responsible for the relationship you have with your boss as she is with the relationship she has with you. Stop bemoaning how your boss can't read your mind, doesn't communicate well, appreciate you enough, give you enough personal attention, or any of the other things we fault bosses for doing poorly. If you're unhappy with your boss but you just react to your boss' management style instead of interacting with it and preemptively changing it through your own actions, you'll never be happy at work.
The Five Pivotal Practices of Managing Up
You're ready to accept the responsibility of managing your boss as much as he manages (or fails to manage) you. Now what? Crowley and Elster have distilled the problems they've encountered counseling thousands of employees into five pivotal practices for managing ineffective bosses. Photo by arte ram.
Train your boss to meet with you regularly. They consider this the most critical of the five pivotal practices. One of the biggest frustrations employees express about workplace communication is that it is sporadic and ineffective. Rather than try to glean meaning from your boss' desk fly-bys or his cryptic emails, schedule time to talk with him. You don't need a lot of time, but you do need to meet with them regularly for at least 15 minutes. How can you ensure these meetings go smoothly? Use the second pivotal practice.
Come to every meeting with a detailed agenda. Managing up is an active pursuit. If you're going to ask your boss for 15 minutes every Monday afternoon to touch base, you'd better make it worth her while. Make an agenda for the meeting that includes topics you want to discuss, prioritised by importance so the big topics get addressed first. Put everything on the agenda even if you don't think you'll have time—maybe you'll luck out and have time or maybe it will get rolled over to the next meeting. File your agenda notes so you can reference them in the future if need be.
Keep a pulse on your boss's changing priorities. It's easy to get sucked into a selfish view of your workplace. After all, you worry the most about yourself, about your career, and what you have to get done that day. Even if your boss is a saint, she still needs to juggle way more than you do and you need to keep tabs on what the priority of the day, week, and quarter is. Check in at the beginning of the work day and midway through with questions like "What do you need today?" and "What else needs to get done?". It helps you because it allows you to ditch things from your to-do list that are no longer relevant to your boss's focus and it helps your boss because they now have a focused and attentive employee.
Anticipate problems and offer solutions. How many times have you heard a coworker say something like "Oh the copier broke? Yeah it was making a weird noise all last week." Why didn't your coworker say anything or call for a repairman? People like that aren't preemptive. You want to be preemptive. Solve problems when they are small. Suggest tangible solutions to recurring problems. Your boss can't do everything, nor is he likely even aware of everything going on in the office. Wouldn't you notice and appreciate somebody you were managing that made your life easier and improved the office workflow? Photo by arte ram.
Always be prepared to give status reports on your project at anytime. Crowley and Elster have interviewed hundreds of people who have a sour outlook on reports. Many people have a hostile attitude towards status reports and other workplace reporting mechanisms because they view them as invasive. Masters of the managing up technique, however, understand that keeping your boss informed on the status of their projects means that their boss is in a better position to make decisions and better able to respond when their supervisors demand updates. The better your boss understands how far you are on large projects and delegated tasks the more competent you look and the more relaxed your boss will be.
To recap: Set up regular meetings, arrive at those meetings with a detailed agenda, check in with your boss and dialogue with them about solutions for workplace problems, and keep them updated on the status of projects and tasks, and you'll be light years ahead of everyone else in your office when it comes to employee-boss relationships (and one of the few people that has a real say in how their work-life plays out).
If you're interested in learning more advanced techniques for managing your boss and neutralising hostile coworkers and managers, the rest of Working With You Is Killing Me is packed with tips for dealing with everyone from credit-stealing bosses to coworkers with explosive personalities.