Crash course: managing your boss

How to manage your boss

You've had a new boss for a few months and you don't really click. He or she is aloof, you keep getting things wrong and it feels as if your contribution isn't valued. What can be done?

by Alexander Garrett
Last Updated: 21 Nov 2014

Work at it. In a seminal 1980 Harvard paper 'Managing your Boss', John Kotter and John Gabarro observed that 'some managers... assume an almost passively reactive stance vis-a-vis their bosses. Such a stance almost always hurts them and their companies'. Working at the relationship or 'managing upwards' has since become an established paradigm.

Meet expectations. The key to the relationship is to make bosses' lives easier, says Sandi Mann, senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. 'If they are laissez faire and don't want to be interrupted for every little thing, then don't. But if they are micro-managers, make sure you give them frequent reports.'

Feel their pain. 'Understand what matters to them and think how you can help them,' says Octavius Black, co-founder of workplace psychology practice Mind Gym. 'Being a boss can be a right pain, but it's usually quite easy to figure out what pressures they are under by seeing when they get stressed and the questions they ask.'

Understand yourself. Self-awareness is important to make any relationship tick. Kotter and Gabarro outlined two extremes: counterdependent people, who always kick against authority, and the overdependent, who are too compliant. 'Trying to make life easier for your boss doesn't mean being a pushover,' says Mann. 'You must decide when to take a stand.'

Bank some goodwill. Be generous with a new boss, says Black. 'At times it may pay to let them take the credit, but make sure they know you have let them. You'll later be able to negotiate from a position of strength.'

Be constructive. Mrs Thatcher used to say of her minister Lord Young: 'Others bring me problems, David brings me solutions.' Don't just dump problems on your boss's desk; if you can't provide the solution, at least frame some options.

Respect their time. 'Use their time carefully,' says Black. 'They will have lots of other things to think about so spending time on you is less valuable to your boss than to you.'

Laugh at their jokes. Bosses have the same insecurities as everyone else. The least you can do is chuckle at their witticisms. At the very least it means they'll want you around.

Do say: 'How can I help you to do your job as effectively as possible?'

Don't say: 'This is what I've always done. The previous boss never complained.'

Alexander Garrett

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