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Taming the beast: how to manage your boss


Work in Progress

James Adonis is one of Australia's best-known people-management thinkers

View more entries from Work in Progress

Remind you of anyone?

Remind you of anyone?

In Stanley Bing’s book, Throwing the Elephant: The Zen and Art of Managing Up, he likens bosses to elephants. They’re both hedonistic. They both make a lot of noise. They play by their own rules and take pride in their size and power. They have short attention spans. They’re “terrific bullshit artists”. And perhaps most importantly, they cannot be ignored.

I asked Bing for the ways in which employees can tame the elephant at work, or rather, how to manage their manager. He had three (quite manipulative) suggestions.

Understand what your boss wants to accomplish. Then ask how you can help him or her do it. 

1. “Probe his or her personality for insecurities and feed them. Once they are stoked to fever pitch, soothe them.”

So what are the symptoms of an insecure leader? In Building your Leadership Resumé, Johnny Hunt lists several characteristics. An insecure leader, he writes, rarely gives credit to others, keeps information from staff, and often micromanages. If those signs are present, chances are the boss lacks confidence.

2. “Create the perception that there are problems and crises that only you can solve. Then solve them.”

Many employees do the opposite. They take problems to their boss in the hope the boss will solve those issues. Greater respect is earned when employees have a list of potential solutions already prepared. Bing’s advice, that problems and crises should be feigned, could backfire if you’re seen as a drama queen.

3. “Do all the jobs that he or she doesn’t want to do. This frees your boss for ‘executive’ thinking and behaviour, and gives you control of the work flow.”

It’s a tip in line with the views of Rosanne Badowski. She was Jack Welch’s assistant at GE for 14 years before writing a book titled Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship With Those Above You, in which she suggests employees should do more than the tasks on their job description. This, she theorises, makes the boss’ job easier and gets the employees to be perceived as indispensable.

For an alternative perspective, I asked John Baldoni for his thoughts. He’s a bestselling author of several leadership books, including Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. He had three suggestions:

1. “Understand what your boss wants to accomplish. Then ask how you can help him or her do it.”

Much of what occurs in the corporate world is a selling game. You’re selling ideas to managers, selling change to employees, and ultimately, selling yourself and your personal brand. It necessitates one of the oldest marketing tricks: discover an underlying need and provide a solution.

2. “Be resourceful. Those who successfully rise in an organisation are those who anticipate change and make it work for them. Look for opportunities to demonstrate initiative and do so in concert with your boss.”

In an article Baldoni wrote for the Harvard Business Review, he states the first step must be to remain open-minded about what can be achieved with limited resources. The person who says “we can do this” always trumps the one who sees restrictions rather than possibilities.

3. “Do your job well. To lead up you must be competent in your job, have credibility with your colleagues, and have confidence in your abilities.”

In other words, be brilliant. But how? In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk writes that the problem people face isn’t one of having too little talent; it’s of having too much – and “our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have”. Talent, he says, isn’t something that simply exists within us. It’s a process we need to work on, and the only way to develop it is by practicing it repeatedly.

So that’s how to manage up. Of course, you could always just choose to be self-employed. But even then you’re still managing up, only this time it’s clients, investors, and other stakeholders. There’s always an elephant in the office.

Do you try to manage your manager? If so, how?

twitter Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

18 comments so far

  • My significant other is now in senior management and works for a megalomaniac who micromanages, second-guesses, undermines and is generally a pain in the rear end. He also owns the company.
    He's well past his use-by date and is a great cause of stress to everyone in the place. My significant other spends a lot of his time running interference to stop said megalomaniac from driving everyone insane.
    Consequently, he has not job satisfaction. Sadly, we are not in a position to change things because of age. He's applied for three very senior management roles, one of which the PD mirrored his CV. Not even an interview.
    What do you do when you are high up the tree, but with no real power?
    Help, we're drowning here!

    not at work
    living the dream
    Date and time
    June 15, 2012, 12:57PM
    • I am 55 & in senior management. When its like what you explained.....get out of there!!! Just keep looking....the right position will come up.

      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 1:39PM
    • Is it that important to be in senior management?

      Date and time
      June 15, 2012, 6:43PM
    • I hear it all the time. "i'm too old", "it's too late for me now"

      I'm Gen X, but I would hire a mid-age/senior over a younger upstart because I know they have a better work ethic.

      Maturity has huge advantages.

      Date and time
      June 16, 2012, 1:23AM
    • At 57 and fallout from the GFC i am now at the bottom rung again and have a stress monster for a boss. I was coming home stressed until i remembered "old age and treachery will overcome youth and inexperience everytime". I know keep my own sanity by creating small micromanaged confusion in the bosses day. move little things like the pens. mobile phone from one room to another. remove a file then put it back.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2012, 8:50AM
  • What's wrong with manipulating people to achieve a better result for all concerned?

    Date and time
    June 15, 2012, 7:41PM
    • That's what we call 'politics', son. It has never been the model for good management. The 'results' can range from poor communication alround to a totally disfunctional organisation.

      Caffetierra Moka
      Sector 7-G
      Date and time
      June 16, 2012, 7:07PM
    • Continued...

      Saying things like 'get out now, something will come along', is not helpful at all, no matter how well-meant. It won't keep food on the table or bills and mortgage paid. Sometimes you have to play the game just to survive. Sometimes you may start thinking deeply and realise that no matter what you think of your boss/colleague’s decisions, there may be times when there is a reason for them that you don’t know about and you may develop better judgement and more maturity and wisdom as a result of having to compromise. Sometimes you’re working for an incompetent or a bully and you have to find ways around it or leave when you have somewhere to go. Either way, it’s all character building.

      Me? I consider myself an abuse survivor. But I have learned so much, especially about myself, during and after that process. I think in retrospect how much better I could have managed had I known then what I know now. There is really nothing like watching the conduct of those above you for some valuable insight into human nature and the sort of person you want to be. :) At the same time, other people, competent or not, are going to be driven to some degree by how you speak to them and look at them. Manipulation can be positive as well as negative.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2012, 3:32PM
    • Is there really any such thing as achieving "a better result for all concerned"? While it's a very noble and idealistic propositon, it simply isn't true.

      Date and time
      June 17, 2012, 6:06PM
  • 4 years at the same position, from being a clueless newby to being indispensable, my lesson was firstly not be emotionally affected by the micromanaging, forgetful, poorly organised, moody and tunnel-visioned supervisor.

    Baldoni's advices were spot on - Dealing with the task at hand (ie whats higher on the priority list) is of course important, but what really helped me was learning new skills, fit in with colleagues, be resourceful (in the case of my job, its knowing how to find information and getting things ready quickly) and do my job well by combining resourcefulness and willingness to learn new things.

    I'm not particularly brilliant or smart, with a little hard work and perseverance I managed well. Next step is to work my way upwards .... :D

    Date and time
    June 16, 2012, 12:57PM

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