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How to Manage Your Boss


You’ve probably heard the phrase "bad manager" before. Perhaps you’re in the throes of a job you loathe–mostly because of a problematic superior who doesn’t do a good job managing you and others.

But what about the way you manage your boss? It’s just as critical, according to John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter, authors of "Managing Your Boss," a Harvard Business Review “Classics” article. Workers must manage their bosses if they want to do their best and benefit themselves, their supervisors and their companies, the authors say.

Two Fallible, Too Human

To manage your boss, you must know your relationship with him or her involves "mutual dependence between two fallible human beings," the article says. Once you recognize that, there are two requirements:

    1. That you have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles and needs.
    2. That you use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship–one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and assets, is characterized by mutual expectations, and meets the most critical needs of the other person.

As you establish and work toward these goals, you’re on your way to effectively managing your boss.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

At first blush, the idea of "managing the boss" seems to defy conventional logic. But it’s a smart strategy.

It emphasizes the interpersonal side of business, something often overlooked in the working world. It empowers workers to take control of their destinies, showing that they’re just as powerful (in their own rights) as their bosses. And rather than underscoring how workers are victims of bad managers, it illuminates a two-way street in the boss-subordinate relationship.

Knowing You, Knowing Me

To understand your boss, the article says, get up to speed on his/her goals, problems, pressures, and heed clues about his/her behavior. Find out how he/she prefers to get information (memos, meetings, phone calls?), whether he/she thrives on conflict or tries to keep it at bay.

When it comes to understanding yourself, the article highlights two extreme behaviors. Counterdependent workers resent the boss’s authority and rebel against it. Overdependent workers are the opposite, compliant to the point of squelching their own anger and viewing the boss as omnipotent. These extremes harbor unrealistic notions of what a boss is, according to the article:

Both views ignore that most bosses, like everyone else, are imperfect and fallible. They don’t have unlimited time, encyclopedic knowledge, or extrasensory perception; nor are they evil enemies. They have their own pressures and concerns that are sometimes at odds with the wishes of the subordinate–and often for good reason.

If you’re aware of these extremes and the range between them, you can gauge where you fall, and how that might affect your relationship with your boss.

We Can Work Well Together

Once you have a sense of your boss and yourself, you should develop a way of working that suits you both.

Work styles can be adapted so you communicate more effectively. The article points to Peter Drucker’s categorizing of bosses as "listeners" or "readers."

If your boss is a listener, you brief him or her in person, then follow it up with a memo. If your boss is a reader, you cover important items or proposals in a memo or report, then discuss them.

Establishing mutual expectations is also important. Determining a boss’s expectations can be tricky, so think creatively, perhaps sending him/her memos outlining expectations and scheduling follow-up meetings to cover the memos.

You should keep your boss as informed as possible, in ways that suit his/her style. Meeting deadlines is critical, too, and honesty is still the best policy, particularly where your boss is concerned.

Matt Schneider
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