How to manage your boss

Every month, Oliver Burkeman invites you to improve your work life


How to manage your boss

The project:

‘Managing upwards’ might sound like something best left to the brown-nosers and ladder-climbers. But it’s really a workplace survival skill that everyone should master. Do it right, and you could even turn the Boss from Hell into a puppy dog

The aim:

Let me guess: your manager’s far from perfect. That’s partly thanks to what’s known as the ‘Peter Principle’: people keep getting promoted until they’re in a job they can’t do well enough to rise any higher. As a result, most managers feel out of their depth at least some of the time – and that panic manifests in exasperating behaviour, like being ultra-critical or unpredictable. Luckily, though, by understanding and learning how to alleviate your boss’s insecurities, you can help her out – while making yourself indispensable. 

The theory:

It’s easy to assume that power in the workplace flows in one direction only: managers tell their underlings what to do, and that’s it. In fact, each ‘side’ depends on the other to get their jobs done. So play armchair psychologist, and step inside your boss’s brain: what’s motivating her? What are her biggest sources of stress, and how could you reduce them?

Pandering to her eccentricities might seem demeaning. But by removing obstacles, thereby letting her do her job, you’ll accumulate power inside your organisation: increasingly, your boss’s effectiveness will come to depend on you. Business writer Stanley Bing even suggests sneakily creating the impression that there are special problems only you can solve – and then solving them. 

Try this: 

Reframe conflicts as collaborations. If your manager does things you can’t stand, you need to address the problem – but that doesn’t mean you need to phrase it as an attack. Instead, ask her advice. For example, if she’s terrible at giving easy-to-follow instructions, explain that you’re seeking some clear goals and that you’d love her help. (And if your manager’s great, be sure to praise her to others.)

Follow the 'no surprises' rule. The cardinal sin of managing upwards is when your boss is embarrassed in front of others – because of something you did (or didn’t do). Avoid communication breakdowns with a regular ritual: a weekly meeting where you update each other, or an end-of-the-day email in which you keep her briefed. 

Don’t be afraid to push back – but offer alternatives. If you say yes to everything, even your boss’s worst ideas, you won’t win any respect – a good employee knows when to tell uncomfortable truths. On the other hand, you don’t want a reputation for obstructionism. The answer is to raise objections when you feel you must – but be sure to offer alternative ways forward when you do. 

Photograph: Richard Morrell/Corbis