Managing Up

Many people aspire to a leadership position at work, but the reality is that not everyone will become a boss. On the other hand, almost everyone will have a boss, but despite this simple truth, it’s much easier to find advice and guidance on how to be a great manager than on how to be an exemplary subordinate. This is surprising, given that the relationship you have with your boss has a major impact on both your career prospects and your overall happiness. So says Mary Abbajay in her book, Managing Up, published in 2018.

Luckily, this book is here now to redress the balance and offer much-needed tips and tricks for enjoying a better relationship with your manager. In short, you’ll learn simple yet effective strategies for managing up – that is, managing your relationship with the person above you. You’ll come away with the confidence and know-how to thrive in any working environment.

The three most powerful points I took from the book were;

  1. There’s nothing wrong with either Innies (Introverts) or Outies (Extroverts), whether you’re a boss or a subordinate. However, problems can arise when there’s a mismatch between your level of extroversion and your boss’s.

  2. The first step to dealing with a micromanager is to win his trust. Given that he trusts neither himself nor you to do a good job, you can help put her at ease by showing her that you’re a dependable worker who consistently performs well.

  3. The truth is that when it comes to really bad bosses, sometimes you just need to do the unthinkable - leave

Horses for courses.

When you want to build interpersonal relationships with people, including your boss, it’s important to understand what makes them tick. How do they tend to communicate and where do they get their energy from? These aspects of personality are usually determined by a person’s level of extraversion, so ask yourself; is your boss an Outie – that is, an extrovert? Or is she an Innie, or introvert? To answer this, look at how your boss behaves.

An Innie boss will often focus on her own thoughts and ideas. This means that she may not share much information with you and might only give you her opinion when you ask for it. This sort of boss doesn’t interact much with her colleagues and tends to reflect on decisions before making them, meaning that she’s slow to respond to people’s queries.

In contrast, a typical Outie boss focuses on the external world of people and her relationships with them. She’ll happily share her knowledge with you; in fact, she may even give you too much information sometimes. You’ll usually know what she’s thinking because she’ll readily tell you, and her friendly attitude will shine through during her regular interactions with staff.

There’s nothing wrong with either Innies or Outies, whether you’re a boss or a subordinate. However, problems can arise when there’s a mismatch between your level of extroversion and your boss’s. Luckily, there are tried and tested strategies for managing up an introverted boss.

For example, if you’re an Outie working for an Innie, you may want more interaction and advice than she tends to give. In this situation, try being proactive. Arrange some one-on-one time with her, and make it your mission to initiate meetings instead of waiting for her to do so. When you do get that precious time with your Innie boss, try not to be too chatty; you’ll get a better response if you keep your interactions tightly focused on the task at hand.

In contrast, if you’re a stressed Innie who feels drained by your Outie boss’s constant communication, there are also ways to manage up. First of all, extroverts need to feel that they’re being heard, so listening, nodding and showing interest while she speaks at length can be a positive step. Second, get comfortable with offering your opinion, even if you have doubts about what you’re saying. Extroverts don’t mind if you think out loud, and they welcome open communication.

At the end of the day, your approach to communication is the key to managing up both Innies and Outies.

Harmonizer vs. Advancer.

People often say that we should behave toward others as we would like them to behave toward us. But what if we’re all so different from one another that what we actually want is to be treated differently? To get along with your boss, you’ll need to determine her workplace personality and treat her accordingly. And in any workplace, there are several distinct personality types.

Two key ones are the Advancer and the Harmonizer. The Advancer is obsessed with getting results. She’s highly goal-oriented and less interested in building friendly relationships with her colleagues. She’s seen as confident, efficient and pragmatic, but also as a cold, demanding and a dominating force around the office.

In contrast, there’s the Harmonizer, who cares less about results and more about making her workplace a great place to be. Her focus isn’t so much on achieving goals as it is on ensuring her colleagues are happy and in sync with one another. While the Harmonizer’s workmates see her as kind and cooperative, they may also consider her weak or too relaxed around the office.

Once you recognize harmonizing or advancing traits in your boss, you should adjust your behaviour to better manage your relationship with her. For example, Advancers are highly solution-oriented and uninterested in agonizing over problems; they want things solved, fast. With this in mind, when you approach your Advancer boss with a problem, you should also have a potential solution in mind. Better yet, have several solutions, so she can swiftly select the best one. Also, remember that Advancers don’t have much time for complaints – they want to hear proposals. For example, instead of complaining to an Advancer about a disorganized IT system, request permission to reorganize that system yourself.

A Harmonizer boss, by contrast, has her mind on the harmony and cohesion of her team. So if a conflict arises between you and one of your colleagues, your boss probably won’t appreciate you taking it to her. Harmonizers don’t want to get involved in interpersonal conflict. Instead, try to resolve your issue with your colleague directly. Furthermore, focus on how the team as a whole can get along with each other better. Even if you’re faking your feelings, your Harmonizer boss will still appreciate your emphasis on the overall team’s well-being. After all, even if everyone doesn’t want to be treated the same way, they do all want to be treated well.

Gain the trust of your micromanager boss.

Does your boss constantly stop by your desk to ask you what you’re doing? Does he explain, in minute detail, how to do a task, even when you know more about it than he does? Is anything but his way the wrong way? If any of these situations sound familiar, then you’ve likely ended up with a micromanaging boss.

The micromanager is the boss who constantly looks over your shoulder and scrutinizes everything you do. Unsurprisingly, dealing with this sort of boss can be highly frustrating. Not only do all humans have an intrinsic need for autonomy and independence, but from a career perspective, micromanager bosses can stifle your potential for professional growth. So how you can you manage this difficult relationship?

First, it helps to understand that many micromanagers are acting from a place of fear. Deep down, these sorts of bosses feel inadequate and insecure in their managerial role. They constantly worry about making mistakes and failing. Unfortunately, the way they deal with these feelings is by over-controlling their subordinates. Micromanaging others makes them feel powerful, and this feeling helps allay their insecurities.

The first step to dealing with a micromanager is to win his trust. Given that he trusts neither himself nor you to do a good job, you can help put him at ease by showing him that you’re a dependable worker who consistently performs well. Although this might mean you have to work harder in the short-term, it’s crucial to prove to your micromanager that you can reliably meet expectations and exercise good judgement. Have faith that if you routinely deliver results from your side of the equation, your boss’s confidence in you will grow, and trust will eventually blossom.

Also, don’t forget to communicate with your micromanager boss – a lot. This type of manager often appreciates knowing every detail of your working day. With this in mind, consider sending him a daily memo that outlines which projects you’re currently engaged with and what their status is. Don’t be afraid to include detailed breakdowns of how you’re managing your time, too. While this would be way too much information for most bosses, your micromanager will be happy to know if you’re going to be a few minutes late or what time you’re taking a client out for coffee. And that might just mean one less visit to your desk per day!

The absentee boss.

It’s easy to imagine the frustration of dealing with a micromanaging boss. After all, we’ve all dealt with overbearing people before. What about the exact opposite, though? A boss who lets you do your own thing 24/7 sounds pretty cool, but the truth is that an absentee boss who doesn’t seem to know or care what you’re doing can be just as challenging to deal with as a micromanager. The absentee boss, either by accident or design, is simply never around when you need her. You might go a whole week without having a meaningful discussion with her, and whenever you need support, she makes it clear that she can’t help you.

This kind of behaviour happens for different reasons. Some absentee bosses want to be more hands-on, but they’re just too swamped with their own workload to provide any guidance. Others make a conscious choice to be hands-off, believing either that employees should know their roles well enough to perform them on their own or that subordinates are “empowered” by lots of autonomy. Lastly, some absentee managers are simply lazy or completely disengaged from their organization. They no longer care about doing their own work, and they don’t care about what you’re doing either. So how do you handle an absentee boss?

The first step is to get on with your work. Although this might sound obvious, many people who are managed by an absentee boss find it difficult to resist the temptation to sit back, reduce their effort and leave work early each day. After all, no one’s watching, right? Wrong. Just because your boss isn’t keeping tabs on you doesn’t mean that everyone else in the office is turning a blind eye too. So make sure you continue to do all the activities associated with your role. If you don’t, then before long it’ll be your reputation that suffers along with your boss’s.

Another way to cope with an absentee boss is to view her disinterest as an opportunity for you to step up to the plate. Nature hates a vacuum, so if your manager is leaving a leader-shaped hole in your team, don’t be afraid to take on some of her responsibilities. You can become the person who takes the difficult decisions and ensures projects are progressing when your manager isn’t around. After all, someone has to do it.

The narcissist boss.

Some bosses seem great when you first meet them. During your recruitment interview, they come off as charming, charismatic and highly skilled – the type of person you’d kill to work for. But then, after a few weeks of working for them, things take a turn for the worse. That perfect leader is actually a power-crazed, egotistical nightmare. If this sounds familiar, then you’ve probably brushed up against the narcissist boss.

There are certain unmistakable traits of this hellish breed of leader. First, the narcissist boss is characterized by his enormous ego, which the people around him need to flatter at all times. This manager thinks he’s the chosen one and as such he believes that he deserves constant adoration and praise from his subordinates. Unfortunately, this means team meetings are often less about work and more about paying tribute to his brilliance. Furthermore, the narcissist boss is on a never-ending power trip; he won’t let you forget that he is the one who calls the shots. And if you dare to challenge his authority, he’ll probably hold a grudge against you. Forever.

So how can you survive this frightening combination of ego and hostility? Well, you can start by reassuring yourself that, in the long run, working for a narcissist might actually benefit your career. Depressing as it sounds, narcissists have a knack for getting to the top of the corporate ladder, and many turn out to be successful entrepreneurs with a lot of influence. If you can put up with their difficult personalities and stick with them, you may well see a payoff in professional advancement and business connections.

However, if you’re going to not just survive but also thrive while working for a narcissist, you’ll need to learn how to talk to them – and how to challenge them. To have difficult conversations, or any conversation, with a narcissist boss, you’ll need to show him an exaggerated amount of respect and deference. If you need to disagree with him, put a lot of care and thought into the words you use and remember that to the narcissist, how you present your message will matter more than the message itself. So to keep him feeling secure and superior, always acknowledge his authority as a prelude to giving your opinion. If you can’t escape the narcissist, you might as well keep yourself in his good graces until he inevitably climbs the corporate ladder.

Show empathy towards an incompetent boss.

Does your boss spend a lot of time focusing on irrelevant things? Does she fail to make decisions, preferring to sit back and be inactive? Do you feel like you’re working in the dark, because she doesn’t keep you in the loop? If any of these scenarios sound familiar, then you’ve probably had the misfortune to work for an incompetent boss.

This type of manager doesn’t mean any harm, but that doesn’t mean she won’t wreak havoc on both your morale and your productivity anyway. That’s because the incompetent boss can’t get anything right. She spends a lot of time shirking important decisions, and when she does make a call, it’s always the wrong one. The incompetent boss is a hopeless communicator. Working with her means working in a state of confusion, because she never keeps you abreast of key developments. You can forget about timelines, too; the incompetent boss routinely misses deadlines and she can’t get her to subordinates to meet them either.

So how can you manage this infuriating leader without having a screaming fit? First, it helps to understand why she’s so poor at her job. Is it possible that she just lacks the confidence to make decisions and is paralyzed by the prospect of failing? If this is the case, then try to approach her with a little more empathy and kindness. Ask yourself how you would feel in her position and how you would want to be treated. Try to think of ways to take some of the pressure off her or to help her navigate the structure of your organization better. Doing so will help you become her ally, rather than an antagonist who makes her already-hard job harder.

Second, try to discover what your incompetent boss is good at, rather than only focusing on her weaknesses. After all, there must be a reason why she was put in a leadership position, so perhaps you can learn something from her. For example, maybe she has excellent technical knowledge of your industry that you can draw on. Or maybe she’s highly adept at selling herself and willing to pass the secrets of self-promotion on to you. Even if she didn’t get the job on any sort of merit, she may still have powerful business or political connections that helped her secure the role – connections that she might be willing to share with you.

Sometimes you just have to walk away.

As a child, the author was given a clear message by his parents: don’t be a quitter. If he started something, they said, he needed to finish it too, whether it was after-school sports or part-time babysitting. For those of us who have also grown up with the philosophy that winners don’t quit, walking away from something can feel like a shameful failure. But the truth is that when it comes to really bad bosses, sometimes you just need to do the unthinkable - leave.

While strategies can help you deal with difficult managers, you shouldn’t ignore warning signs that it’s time for you to move on from the situation altogether. So the next time Sunday evening comes around, take the time to reflect on how you’re feeling. While few of us relish the prospect of work the next day, it’s not healthy to absolutely dread it or feel as if you’re about to go to jail. If that’s how you feel at the end of the weekend, it’s time to think about quitting, says Abbajay.

Alarm bells should also start ringing if you’re spending most of your time and mental energy at the office on anything other than your actual work. When you’re so busy with cutthroat office politics that your work comes second, or if you’re preoccupied with devising ways to survive or hide from your boss, it’s time for a change.

Unfortunately, although we may recognize that our working environment has become too stressful, many of us feel unwilling to go. Why? Because we think we’ve invested too much time and hard work – and too much of ourselves – into our role or the organization to just walk away from it. So we continue to stick it out, hoping that our investment will pay off in the end.

However, it’s important to consider that while you’ll never be able to get back everything your job has cost you in terms of time and hard work, you can stop it from costing you future joy. Remember, every day that you spend being miserable in your current job is another day you’re giving up the opportunity to be fulfilled and successful somewhere else. And while you can’t hope to change the past, you can take back control of your career and your happiness by daring to hope for something better.


What I took from it.

Managing your relationship with your boss is vital to your career success, so it’s worth taking the time to observe your boss and better understand what makes her tick. Knowing things like how she likes to be communicated with and what her managerial blinds spots are will go a long way toward not only building bridges with the person you need to work under every day, but in helping you survive and thrive in the long run.

When working for a narcissist, you can’t trust anyone. If you find yourself working for a narcissist boss, it can be tempting to complain about them to your colleagues behind their backs. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous move. Narcissist bosses tend to be paranoid and often reward sycophantic followers who show them loyalty. Thus, in an effort to curry favour, the colleague you complained to may well report back to your boss on everything you’ve said about him. Before you know it, you’ve made a dangerous enemy. Safer to keep your true feelings to yourself!

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