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Managing Up

| June 2, 2015

by Jim Bruce

 In addition to all of the things you have to do in your job is the important responsibility of managing the relationship with your boss.  It takes time and energy.  And, managing it is as important as any of your work, and doing it well can simplify your job by eliminating future problems.
Stop for a moment and examine the relationship you have with your boss.  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 the “boss” being the senior partner and me as the junior.  In a partnership, each partner depends upon the other in order to succeed.  And 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 manage it.  When you take the time to cultivate a productive working relationship–by understanding your boss’s strengths and weaknesses, priorities, and work style– everyone wins.”
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.  Here are some key elements to think about:
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.
Understanding the Boss – You need to gain an understanding of your boss’s 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 their boss likes to get 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.
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.
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 both be more productive and effective. 
In addition to the points mentioned 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.
•  Mutual Expectations – At some point in the development of the relationship, it’s important that you discover your boss’s 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 two things that will destroy your relationship with your boss.  While few people would be intentionally dishonest with their boss, it is easy to shade the truth or play down issues.  A boss cannot work effectively if they cannot rely on information they receive 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 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.  Take some time this week to evaluate the relationship you have with your boss and begin the process of making that relationship stronger and more effective.
Have a great week.  .  .  .    jim

  1. John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter, Managing Your Boss
  2. Dana Rousmaniere, What Everyone Should Know About Managing Up  
  3. HBR Guide to Managing Up And Across