How to manage your boss

Trying to keep the boss sweet is a time-consuming business, but it helps if you know what's coming.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

No relationship at work is more important than the one you have with your boss. That person has a direct and powerful impact on the quality of your working life. It would be difficult to imagine that anyone really enjoys their job if their boss is a nightmare. And when people resign, it's not usually a company or a business sector that they are quitting: it's a relationship - the one that they had with their boss.

With parents or teachers, we could always shout back when we didn't like the way we were being treated. But in the workplace we are supposed to act like grown-ups and come up with something more considered than 'That's so unfair!'

We should be building an adult-to-adult relationship that is civilised and productive.

That's where it can get difficult. You may think you've been hired to boost the sales figures, to run the Europe operation or to lead global corporate communications. But soon after starting out in a new role, you often find that this is not the biggest call on your time or the toughest challenge you face. The hardest job you have is managing your own boss.

It's frightening to think how much of the working week can be given over to keeping the boss sweet. Did you really need to go to that meeting? Was that three-page memo strictly necessary? How does worrying about your boss improve the quality of what you do, or the service you offer your customers?

Of course bosses matter. We urgently need better ones. The eternal agonising over low UK productivity is essentially a debate about the quality of our supervisory management: better bosses get better results. So it's good business practice, as well as a wise career move, to concentrate on what your boss is thinking about.

But how do you know where your efforts should be focused? First you have to recognise, and understand, the type of boss you've got. And MT is here to help.

As you might expect, we've come across a lot of different managers here over the years (the clue is in the title of the magazine).

There aren't many boss types we haven't met. So, with all due modesty, let MT analyse and dissect some of the characters you may have to deal with. Over the next couple of pages, we'll share our experience.

Which bosses do you really need to look out for? Who might be good to work for? Who should you never work for? And how are all these people likely to behave?

This is not an exhaustive guide to the entire boss species, but it's a good place to start. And if you can master your relationships with the famous five we feature here, then there are few bosses you won't be able to cope with.

So read on. But, please, don't let the boss catch you looking at it.

THE MICRO-MANAGER

Don't look now, but you're about to be called to another meeting to discuss, again, whether that exhaustively planned project really should go ahead, or not. For anxious micro-managers, it's never too late to start worrying. Nothing is ever truly decided. That early morning e-mail is the give-away: 'Been thinking a bit more about that idea. Still not happy.

Come and see me at 1pm.' So that's lunch out of the window, again.

Maybe we should be charitable - 'Forgive them, they know not what they do'. When micro-managers hit the panic button, as they can do every few days, they are literally out of control. Psychology and biochemistry are now in charge: what chance do you stand against that lot? There's a lifetime of excess baggage to deal with here. You could just keep your head down and wait for a bit of calm to return, as it will. Probably. You hope.

How to spot one

They'll spot you first, bearing down on you at speed. Micro-managers often display extreme mood swings, seeming at one moment irrationally happy, then exquisitely unhappy the next. Their attention to detail is numbing. Nothing will be left to chance. Working for a micro-manager can be shattering, because it is never safe to relax.

Pros & cons

If you can raise your game and deliver the same kind of nervous intensity as the micro-manager, you could go far - if your health and sanity can stand it. The micro-manager's zeal for success may sweep you up to new career heights; on the other hand, this will probably remain a low-trust relationship. Nothing is ever good enough for the micro-manager, and you can be sure as hell you won't be.

How to make it work

There's always the high-risk approach: confront the neuroses head-on. Say how ridiculously anal the boss is being. Tell him to get a life. It might work.

THE ABSENTEE SUPERSTAR

No man is a hero to his valet. It's the same story at work. That smooth-talking, much-quoted, super-networked star of the conference circuit may be in demand in the outside world, but when it comes to results, he gets fewer standing ovations from the people who know him best - his colleagues.

Big names cast a big shadow. But that's the problem for the superstar manager's team - they are often working in the dark. Highfalutin ideas and deals, agreed in a casual moment over the lunch-table, have to be made to work in the real world. Working for The One Who Is Never There is a bit like having an absentee landlord. Are you allowed to make a decision? And does he even know who you are?

How to spot one

You read and hear about the superstar manager a lot more than you actually see him in the office. At meetings, parties or conferences, you will be met with comments such as: 'Oh, he's a cool guy, saw one of his presentations once, must be great to work with.' What to say on these occasions - shatter people's illusions, or just smile and nod? You know what you have to do ...

Pros & cons

Your CV may benefit from the reflected glory of working with a superstar. People will want to talk to you, if only find out what he is really like. And maybe, just maybe, you will be able to plug into his network on very rare occasions. But the downside is severe. You will receive no visible means of support and if things don't go well, according to his own carefully worked out PR plan for himself, you will get the blame.

How to make it work

Imagine what the superstar's two-year plan for himself might be. Help him make it happen. Then book your place for a smooth ride on his coat-tails.

THE MANAGER-UPPER

F Scott Fitzgerald said that a first-rate mind should be able to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time, and retain the ability to function. This theory partly explains the continued success of the manager-upper.

Whatever the prevailing orthodoxy at the firm is, the manager-upper believes in it. Totally. Until it changes. Then he believes in the new one.

At night, when he is alone, the manager-upper lulls himself to sleep with the words of Gloria Gaynor's disco classic 'I will survive'. He is the corporate Vicar of Bray. Have pity for anyone unlucky enough to be managed by the manager-upper. They will need the skills of a contortionist to respond to the constant changes in direction.

How to spot one

The manager-upper lurches towards power like iron filings towards a magnet. If you're in his team, there will be a never-ending series of news flashes, presented with a calm, smiling face, explaining why everything that was said yesterday no longer applies, and was indeed quite possibly palpable nonsense. The manager-upper's focus and priorities lie elsewhere. You will quickly find out how much you matter by the amount of attention you get from him.

Pros & cons

If the manager-upper is any good, his teams will at least be well thought of at the highest levels. And there is no finer barometer of the corporate mood than your trusty manager-upper. After all, he spends almost all his time looking over both shoulders to see what the company will throw at him next. On the downside, the manager-upper has no time for anybody below him, or even his peers. They are nothing to him. If your boss spends his days managing upwards, you may as well not exist.

How to make it work

Leapfrog the hierarchy and work out what the manager-upper is thinking. You may not be able to change your boss, but at least you will know where the nonsense will be coming from. And this might give you enough time to duck.

THE TOXIC SHIT

Some people just don't care. They don't care if they are hated. They don't care if they are feared - in fact, they rather like it. This makes them dangerous, and often frighteningly effective, as tough, no-nonsense, brutal bosses.

If they remain within the rule of law, there's little anyone can complain about. Sure, it's not nice, but it works, at least for a time. The trouble starts when this toughness mutates into toxicity, when the shit not merely hits the fan, but takes over the whole company.

The sadistic boss works a bit like a neutron bomb, devastating all human life around him while leaving the buildings standing. He may be a crook, he may even on occasion turn psychotic. You don't want to get in his way. Just agree to his demands and get back to your desk, pronto.

How to spot one

When the temperature suddenly drops several degrees, and an eerie hush descends, the big toxic boss is in the house. He will be calm, quiet, unhurried: a silent assassin. He is a bully who can't be bullied back. He will break your bones (metaphorically, of course) without skipping a beat. He is remorseless in crushing opposition both inside and outside the business.

Pros & cons

If you can stand the heat, the chances are the toxic boss will be running a company that in the short term proves rather effective. Fear can make people work very hard. You could, for a short while, make some serious money. But, more likely, the pressure of working for the toxic boss will prove too much. It will break you, and your family. You will simply have to leave, maybe after blowing the whistle on the whole set-up.

How to make it work

Front up, take the pain and cry yourself to sleep if you can. If you can't, get the hell out. The toxic company is no place to work for a civilised person.

THE OUT-OF-HIS-DEPTH MANAGER

Stuff happens. Especially when you work for a twat. If Murphy's Law states that 'the things that can go wrong, will', then the out-of-his-depth manager must hail from Planet Murphy. It may not be his fault. But this guy, amazingly, has been promoted, and it's not going to be pretty.

When you're lumbered with a flailing incompetent for a boss, you may just have to laugh and bear it. You could slap your forehead and cry: 'What has he done now!', but what good will it do? You're not going to change him. He has, under the time-honoured Peter Principle, been promoted beyond the level of his capabilities. He is miles out to sea, 'not waving, but drowning'.

How to spot one

Business restructurings can be a bit like a game of musical chairs. And when the corporate music stops, you end up with a lot of new bums on seats. Often, it's the wrong bum on the managerial seat nearest you. He will betray a mixture of surprise and disbelief at his new station in life. There will be long pauses and bewildered smiles as you start confronting him with his new responsibilities. And soon there will be a great ruddy mess where a functioning business unit used to be.

Pros & cons

As in the Keystone Kops, an incompetent boss may be momentarily amusing. But this is reality we are dealing with here, not the movies. Life on a team led by someone who is out of his depth may well mean a slow, lingering career death. Something has to give. Either he leaves or you do. Best start making some plans.

How to make it work

Be brave. It may not last for ever. He will be gone soon - probably. You could always snitch. But, in truth, there may be no obvious solution here. As Goethe said: 'Against stupidity even the gods themselves struggle in vain.'

THE SAINT

Oh yes, we nearly forgot. Just occasionally, you find yourself working for someone who really does inspire you. These managers tend to have a few characteristics in common. They have a sense of humour. They want to get on, but they don't want to die in the attempt. They are ambitious and talented, but also realistic, even patient. They have high standards, but they are not nutters.

Yes, good bosses do exist. They are spontaneous, natural and approachable. Good bosses keep up a constant, regular dialogue with you, giving you constructive feedback and avoiding nasty surprises. They are demanding and expect a lot from you. They set challenging targets and encourage you to go for them. But they don't blame you if things go wrong, and they are full of praise when things go right.

Above all, they listen. They understand your concerns and want you to understand theirs. You feel energised and far more positive after talking to them. These bosses are rare and worth cherishing. They're out there, somewhere.

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