How to manage your boss: If you think the only way to handle your manager is with a cattle prod, your career trajectory will be low Bosses vary and you have to understand them to find out what they want from you. Then you can deliver it - on your own term

How to manage your boss: If you think the only way to handle your manager is with a cattle prod, your career trajectory will be low Bosses vary and you have to understand them to find out what they want from you. Then you can deliver it - on your own term

by MATTHEW LYNN
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Even if there were nothing else to look at on the world wide web, the invention of myboss.com would have made its creation worthwhile. The site is a monument to managerial incompetence, stupidity and vindictiveness - a silent chapel where the employed of the world can gather under discreet electronic cover to swap tales from the dark and beastly trenches of corporate life.

Take, for example, the hapless wage-slave whose jury service was interrupted by an urgent call from his office. After asking the jury foreman's permission take the call, he was told by his boss that he was needed back at work.

He explained that the jury was still deliberating over a verdict, but his boss replied: 'That guy is guilty anyway. If you don't get back to the office this minute, you're fired.' Then there's the story of the employee who found himself in big trouble for tapping '****' into his computer as his password. His boss thought that far too obvious.

For all its twisted comedy, myboss.com is making a valid point. Those of us who are employed by other people know that of all the relationships we have to manage at work - with customers, suppliers or colleagues - none is so important as the one with our boss. It is also usually the most difficult we have to manage.

'We are all getting much worse at managing our relationships with our employers,' observes Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Manchester Business School. 'It is very important, but most people aren't very good at it. That is partly because we all spend too much time sitting in front of computers sending e-mails, so we are forgetting how to communicate with one another. But it is also because job insecurity has become so much worse. People are frightened and stressed in the workplace, and that stops them from communicating with one another effectively.'

Many people automatically categorise their boss in a box labelled 'the enemy', but the most important step towards managing the relationship is to understand the person. Bosses, just like everyone else, fall into different categories, and it is no good trying to use the wrong strategy on the wrong person.

Rule one of managing bosses effectively. Understand who they are and what they want. Bosses fall into three main categories: the nightmare boss from hell; the average, okay, struggling-to-keep-their-head-above-water boss; and the dynamic, wise, fair, well-adjusted, even reasonably good-looking boss - who probably exists only in management textbooks.

Bosses from hell are obviously the most difficult to manage. Their constant ability to thwart your most reasonable suggestions will regularly take your breath away. Try to find out what they want from you - even though that can be tricky, since they probably don't know themselves, and if they did they wouldn't tell you.

But even quite reasonable bosses can be hard to understand. For example, you might think a particular project is a waste of time. Secretly, your boss might agree with you. But it could be that the project is a strict order from higher up, and that your department has to press on with it to get permission to develop a separate, worthwhile project. Bosses have pressures of their own; try to discover their agenda and look at ways of fitting into it.

'It is almost always a mistake to be confrontational,' observes Cooper.

'Nobody ever likes confrontation.' Tempting though it might be to throw a tantrum and start issuing final ultimatums, it is rarely an effective way of achieving what you want. Usually it will frighten and alienate the very people you are trying to influence.

In truth, your boss will be as susceptible to manipulation as anyone else. Bringing him or her round to your point of view is a better way of achieving what you want than stamping your feet. Surviving in a big office requires a constant public relations effort. Rule two of boss management.

Use the skills of a spin doctor. Most managers can be spun just as effectively as the press or the public. Take the following example: one of your customers calls up out of the blue one morning to place a big order for your product.

You are thrilled, but it creates a tricky spin issue - the order was a compete fluke, but it would be better if people didn't know that.

You could walk into your boss' office, describe how lucky you have been and then start celebrating. But that would undermine your achievement.

Your boss might be suspicious of someone who seems to rely on luck. It would be far better to casually mention there was a possibility of a big order from customer X, but that you had to go to a few more meetings to nail it down. Try to look sweaty and nervous, as if it were touch and go whether the order would come off. Then you could try asking your boss for some advice on how to handle the final big meeting that will land the order.

There is a risk factor here. If your boss decides to come along to this imaginary meeting to help close the deal, you could end up looking for a new job. But if the ploy works, your boss will feel that he or she has contributed to your success. Allowing other people to share some ownership of your triumphs is one of the best ways to make sure they will help you to triumph some more.

One of the most useful weapons in the armoury is the management of expectations.

It doesn't usually matter how well you do in absolute terms - the object is to do better than you were expected to do. So it is a mistake to overplay your hand. Don't let the boss think you are about to land a big order, win a new client, or beat a deadline by miles unless you are sure you can deliver. Downplay expectations. For example, if your boss thinks you were going to miss the deadline by three days and you miss it by only two days, he or she will be quietly pleased by your performance. But if you were expected to meet the deadline, they will be annoyed that you were so late. Getting the boss into the first category rather than the second shows the importance of skilful boss management.

No matter how difficult or demanding bosses might be, it is usually a mistake to criticise them directly. 'You should never bad-mouth your boss.

It will always get back to them,' observes Cooper. 'Your enemies will make sure they hear about it.'

Rule three of boss management. Appearances at work are everything. You might be the one person in the organisation who actually makes sales, brings in new clients or comes up with the product that draws in the customers, but that will be no use unless your boss knows about it. Alternatively, you may never make a sale or come up with a product idea, but that won't matter so long as your boss doesn't realise.

Understand the way your boss wants his office to look. Most bosses like theirs to look busy, even though there may not actually be much to do most of the time. A busy office makes the boss look in control. So, during a lull in the workload, it would be a big mistake to put your feet up on the desk and read a magazine. Far better to peer intently at your computer screen, even if you are just browsing through football web sites. Even better, go out. Your boss will usually assume you are at an important meeting.

Some bosses worry that their staff are not working hard enough. Your response should be to look stressed and harassed, even if there is no reason to. If you look relaxed, your boss will assume you are doing nothing. Others - usually the rare boss-from-heaven type - worry that their staff are overloaded. They become nervous if you betray signs of stress. So, even if you are cracking under the strain of meeting a deadline, don't show it.

Always appear the way your boss wants you to appear. But don't be too eager to please. One of the worst things you can do around an office is give your boss the impression that when he says jump you just ask 'how high?'. So long as you establish that you make a valuable contribution to the company, a boss should devote as much energy to sucking up to you as you do to him.

Perhaps the most vital skill in managing the boss well is creating the impression that you are weighing up alternative job offers. You don't want him or her to think you are actively looking for another job - that will make you seem disloyal. Yet you don't want the boss to think you are going to be there for ever - that will make you, in your boss' eyes, the office punchbag. Of course, you can end up in that role no matter how you play the game. Rule four. Some bosses really are a nightmare - and the best strategy is to ship out quickly and find one you can manage.

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