Perfect the art of “managing up” in the workplace

Knowing how to manage your boss can be highly beneficial – especially if you go for a carrot
See your boss as a resource, but also know when to climb down.
Keeping relations sweet between you and your superiors can feel draining. In fact, if you haven’t had a bad experience with a boss so far in your career, you should count yourself lucky. In response to a survey last year, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the careers website Glassdoor, two-thirds said their boss had impacted their career. And while half said that impact had been positive, 20 per cent said it was negative.
So what can you – as the inferior – do to ensure smooth relations? A seminal article by professors John Gabarro and John Kotter, first published in 1980, stressed the importance of “mutual dependence” in the manager-boss relationship. The authors popularised the idea of “managing your boss”. Rejecting the notion of a traditional top-down power relationship, they argue that, when a subordinate takes the reins in working out how best they and their boss can work together, it leads to better outcomes for both sides.

GIVE AND TAKE

Others have a more straightforward way of looking at it. Writing for Forbes, author Geoffrey James says simply: “consider your boss a service provider who helps you get your job done”. At the same time, he says, it’s important you stick to your promises, communicate efficiently and clearly, and take what you do seriously. Make the most of your boss, but remember the relationship has to be reciprocal.
Maximising the give-and-take approach also means understanding your boss’s motivations. Author and commentator Margie Warrell recommends an empathy approach, focusing in particular on what might frighten, frustrate or occupy the mind of a superior. Encountering difficult personalities in the workplace is inevitable, she points out, so sussing out how to get round them will be key to your success. More specifically, Gabarro and Kotter say it’s important to know how your boss takes in information – are they a listener or a reader? Detail like whether to speak to or email them will limit hassle for them and, therefore, for you.

BE PROACTIVE

This balancing act between managing number two in order to look out for number one does, however, mean treading a fine line – especially if you and your boss don’t always see eye to eye. Emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutschendorf, writing for FastCompany, says that you should “realise that if you find yourself in a power struggle, you will lose.” This doesn’t equate to not standing up for yourself, but it does mean climbing down when emotions run high. Keep your dignity and be able to put forward your grievances once the situation has calmed down. This way, your boss’s position is not challenged, but you’re giving them the opportunity to understand your stance.
James has a similar recommendation: “advise, but then obey”. If a daft decision is suggested, put forward a better alternative, but back off once your boss has made a final call. Taking steps to utilise your relationship is one thing, but it’s also worth knowing when to take a step back.

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