Managing Up

By: Jim Bruce

In addition to all of the things you have to do in your job is the important responsibility of managing your relationship with your boss. This takes real time and energy. And, it is as important as any of your other work. Doing it very well can significantly simplify your job by eliminating frustrations and future problems.


Stop for a moment and examine the existing relationship you have with your boss. Be brutally honest with yourself. A healthy, positive relationship makes your work life much easier. It is also good for your career and your job satisfaction. I’ve often thought that the best way to think about this relationship is as a partnership with my “boss” being the senior partner and me, the junior. In a partnership, each partner depends upon the other in order to succeed. As a result of the relationship, each can influence the other in a way that improves the performance of both.


An editor’s note to a January 2005 Harvard Business Review article by John Gabarro and John Kotter, “Managing Your Boss,” talks about this relationship in more detail: “…bosses need cooperation, reliability, and honesty from their direct reports.  … [Subordinates] rely on bosses for making connections with the rest of the company, for setting priorities, and for obtaining critical resources.” If the relationship between you and your boss is rocky, then it is you who must begin to act. When you take the time to cultivate a productive working relationship – by understanding your boss’ strengths and weaknesses, priorities, and work style – everyone wins. The key point they make is that the manager-boss relationship is one of mutual dependence.


When Gabarro and Kotter, and I, speak of managing your relationship with your boss, we’re talking about the process of consciously working with your supervisor to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and your organization. Understanding each other’s “operating system,” being explicit about your individual communication strategies and showing mutual kindness are keys to success.


Misreading the Boss-Subordinate Relationship – Boss-subordinate relationships involve mutual dependence between two fallible human beings. If you don’t recognize this, you likely will either avoid trying to manage the relationship with your boss or manage it ineffectively. It’s easy to assume, incorrectly, that your boss doesn’t need your help and cooperation to do his or her job effectively. You need to acknowledge that your boss can be damaged by your actions and inactions, and really needs your cooperation, dependability, and honesty. Some people see themselves as not very dependent on their bosses. Yet your boss can play a critical role in linking you to the rest of the organization, making sure your priorities are consistent with organizational needs, and in securing the resources you need to perform well.


Gabarro and Kotter, referenced above, note that the boss-subordinate relationship is managing a situation of mutual dependence among fallible human beings and requires two things:

  1. That “you have a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles, and needs.
  2. That you use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship – one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and assets, is characterized by mutual expectations, and meets the most critical needs for the other person.”


Understanding the Boss – You need to develop a solid understanding of your boss’ goals and pressures, his or her strengths and weaknesses. His or her organizational and personal objectives, pressures from their own boss, their style of working, how your boss likes to get their information (memos, email, phone calls, text messages, one-on-one meetings, …), how he or she deals with conflict, etc. Without this information, you are flying blind, and problems are inevitable. And, should your boss change, you need to start over in the process of understanding your new boss.


Let me provide a specific example. When I became MIT’s first CIO and Vice President for Information Systems, I reported to MIT’s Senior Vice Present, an individual whom I had known and worked with for a decade or so. We had an effective, informal working relationship, we understood and respected how the other worked and worked in and extended that framework as necessary.  This continued as I became CIO. We had conversations and interacted informally at least weekly. A decade into my tenure as CIO, we installed the SAP environment as MIT’s primary business environment. With that came weekly meetings with the Senior Vice President, and the Vice President for Finance and Treasurer. There the three of us worked through the status of the project and issues that were surfacing. He retired, a new Senior Vice Present was named. The new SVP had a totally different style and so the learning process started all over.


Understanding Yourself – The boss is only one-half of the relationship. If you are going to develop an effective working relationship, you need to know your own needs, your strengths and weaknesses, and personal style. You need to become aware of what it is about you that impedes or facilitates working with your boss and with that awareness, take actions that make the relationship more effective. And, as you might suspect, as you and your boss develop in your roles and as your respective responsibilities change, you have to continue to evolve your understanding of each other.


Developing and Managing the Relationship – If you and your boss understand yourselves, you can often establish a way of working together with mutual expectations that helps you and your boss be both more productive and effective. 


In addition to the points in the previous paragraphs about understanding your boss and yourself (which you may want to make into a checklist), here are some additional matters that go into making a successful relationship:


  • Compatible Work Styles – A good working relationship with a boss accommodates differences in work style, for example in the way he or she makes decisions, and draws on each other’s strengths and makes up for each other’s weaknesses. You, as the junior partner in this relationship, may need to be more accommodating to the boss’ style. However, don’t be overly shy in suggesting other ways that the two of you might interact in specific situations.


  • Mutual Expectations – At some point in the development of the relationship, it’s important that you discover your boss’ expectations. It may be helpful to discuss these or to summarize them in a note. You will also need to reflect on your expectations and communicate and discuss them with your boss.


  • Information Flow – Make sure that you keep your boss informed at the levels necessary for the organization’s effective operation and in a way that matches his or her style.


  • Dependability and Honesty – Not being dependable, not doing what you say you will do, and not being honest are three things that will destroy your relationship with your boss. Your boss not doing these three things will also destroy the relationship. While few people would be intentionally dishonest with their boss, it is easy to shade the truth or play up or down your issues. A boss cannot work effectively if he or she cannot rely on information he or she receives from their staff.


  • Good Use of Time and Resources – Both you and your boss have limited time, energy, and influence. Use that time and the resources wisely remembering that some amount of real time and energy are required to manage your relationship with each other.


Strong, functional relationships between a boss and his or her staff are essential for the effective working of an organization. Find some time this week to stop, reflect on, and evaluate the relationship you have with your boss and begin the process of making that relationship even stronger and more effective.


Make it a great week for you and your team.  .  .  .    jim


[An earlier version of this essay appeared as the Tuesday Reading for May 16, 2015.]

No votes yet