News & Insight
May 2007

Bosses Matter: Learn How to Manage Your Boss

The following is an edited excerpt from

Driving the Career Highway – 20 Road Signs You
Can’t Afford to Miss,

Managing up. There’s nothing tougher. Managing subordinates is a piece of cake by comparison. For one thing, when you manage down, you start off with the power of review and the power of the purse, and so you begin from a position of authority. Having some measure of say-so over people’s jobs, compensation packages, and lives—while a formidable responsibility—actually provides a structure within which you can provide direction and exert control. Not so with your boss, of course. It takes a whole different set of skills and techniques to manage a superior, but it is essential for keeping your car tooling fast and straight down the career highway. For one thing, some bosses are just not very good at being the boss. A lot of bosses overmanage. You’re given an assignment and told to execute it—and there’s the boss, hanging over your shoulder every second, monitoring the project’s status. Others undermanage, and you find yourself adrift with insufficient direction, inadequate feedback, and not enough resources for doing the job. And some bosses are just inept: fearful of losing their jobs, power hungry, moody, just plain mean, or—perhaps worst of all—absent. Whatever the situation, an inadequate boss can suck all the creativity out of your work life, dampen your enthusiasm, even curb your productivity. In short, a bad boss can create an employee who cannot win, much less survive the career highway: reason one why you need to manage up.

Even the best boss in the world needs to be managed. Whether you were personally chosen by your boss or you “inherited” him or her, your wagon is inevitably hitched to the boss’s star. You’re associated with the boss, and his or her performance, reputation, abilities, and image in the company invariably reflect on you—often to the point where the way you’re perceived is conflated with the way the boss is perceived. Yet the most important reason you need to manage your boss, good or bad, is this: there’s no person more important to your career at any one moment than your boss. No one else in the organization has as direct an impact on your career progress or on the direction in which it goes. So learning to manage the boss must be part of your professional education.

If you’re going to manage the boss, you first need to know whom he or she is. Paint a portrait of the individual you report to by listing her Strengths, Weaknesses and Aspirations. You’ll have to do some incisive thinking in this exercise, and you’ll need to rely on a sixth sense to pick up on the unspoken signals every individual sends out. In this case, those signals will likely concern those things your boss cannot or will not let you in on because of comfort level, fear of litigation, or the sense that you will pick up on it in any event. Basically, what you’re trying to articulate are the qualities, talents, and personal and political connections your boss brings to his or her job and place in the organization—and the weaknesses, failures, and areas of incompetence or indifference he or she exhibits. Where is he or she “merely competent”, and to what is your boss indifferent? What does the boss find easy to do—and what gives him or her problems? Now put yourself inside your boss’s head and heart and try to determine, from all you sense about this person, exactly what he or she aspires to. In dealing with people at any level on any subject, it’s usually possible to tell after a while what their true ambition or ultimate goal is. Try to ascertain your boss’s hoped-for aim. Write it down. It should tell you a lot about this person you report to.

Once you know who your boss really is, you need to look at your relationship with your boss. First, what does your boss expect of you? Use the chart below to list at least three expectations your boss has “told” you are foremost in his or her mind—and should therefore be foremost in your mind. Second, what do you believe are your boss’s unspoken expectations of you? Again, set down three things you think the boss wants from you—perhaps concerning the way you dress, or a commitment of time in the office, or certain proficiencies you bring to the job.

Third, what is the bottom-line appraisal of you that you have heard from your boss? Write down the three top words you know your boss would use to describe you.


1. ________________________________________

2. ________________________________________

3. ________________________________________

Finally, write down three words your boss has not used that you think really describe what he or she thinks of you.


1. ________________________________________

2. ________________________________________

3. ________________________________________

Knowing your relationship with your boss is your reality check before taking action to manage the boss.

Now that you know who your boss is and where and how you believe you stand in relation to him or her, it’s time to figure out how to influence the boss. In short, it’s time to plan how to manage up. There’s a simple way to carry out this task. Go back to the Boss Profile you created and add a fourth column to the chart in which you determine how you can enhance the boss’s strengths and shore up the boss’s weaknesses to advance him or her toward the aspirations you’ve articulated. The reality check of understanding the boss’s true perception of you is essential to the management task. You cannot really change your boss, but you can change how he or she perceives you. If you believe the boss secretly thinks you’re lazy, you will need to change that perception if you want to manage the boss toward taking bold action. If you believe the boss thinks you have no interest but self-interest, you must show him or her that his or her self-interest is what matters. If you suspect the boss finds you loyal, steadfast, and true, you must also show the boss you see things through his or her eyes—and will use your loyalty to help.

Basically, what you’re doing when you try to manage up is looking at things from the boss’s perspective, trying to understand the boss’s problem, and making the boss’s ambitions your own. Nothing is better calculated or better suited to managing the boss—or anyone else—than supporting that person in achieving his or her dreams.

By consciously working with your boss to obtain the best possible results he or she can achieve, you invariably obtain better results for yourself. Does this mean you give up your own ambitions in favor of the boss’s? Absolutely not. It means that you use the boss’s ambitions—and your help in achieving them—as an on-ramp to your own career highway. Does it mean you become a yes-man to everything the boss says or suggests or demands? Again, absolutely not! What it means is that when your boss says no to your killer idea, you write her a memo showing how the idea can advance what you now understand to be her goals—and you make it clear, without actually saying so, that the killer idea will also show off her strengths and, off the record, cover up her weaknesses. It means that when the boss breaks a commitment to you, you complain in terms of how the broken commitment diminishes your ability to help the boss advance toward his aspiration. Again, you don’t say this in so many words, but keep the boss’s viewpoint in mind. Your purpose, in short, is to help the boss achieve his or her purpose. Keep that purpose in mind, and you’ll become an expert in managing up.

Driving the Career Highway – 20 Road Signs You Can’t Afford to Miss, published by Thomas Nelson, Inc., is available in bookstores.

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