When I was 22, I started my first “career” job, in advertising. My manager, Kate, was 26. She was immaculate, dominant and from what I could tell, very good at her job. She was also mildly terrifying and had a habit of making me feel stupid. Kate wasn’t a bad manager but she wasn’t a great one either, though many of her flaws I’m only aware of looking back. Throughout my career, I’ve reported into many different people at different levels. Some brilliant, some quite terrible. I’ve witnessed many different ways a boss can be difficult but unfortunately, in most cases, they aren’t bad enough to be replaced and you’re left to try and navigate your progress around their short-comings. Some common categories I’ve experienced include:
The Micro-Manager: this person likes to keep a way too firm grip on everything. They aren’t big into finding opportunities for your growth and think its their way or the wrong way. The micro-manager is the kind of person who insists on morning check ins and tick lists. Updating them becomes 50% of your job…
The Manipulator: the kind of person who makes you feel utterly useless, then will randomly take you out for breakfast the week before their review. You never know whether you’re in or out of favour and feel constantly on edge as a result.
The Ego-Maniac: could they give a sh*t about you? Nope. They are far more interested in paying attention to the CEO, trying to sneak credits on everything. Managing you is little more than a box ticked for the ego maniac.
The Utterly Uninspiring: Whilst this sounds like a lesser evil, it can be a total nightmare. You’re being directed and assessed by someone who is pretty clueless. The Utterly Uninspiring has a tendency to say things like “Be patient and one day you could become like me”… SOUNDS GREAT
There are others of course but the above covers some common brackets. Knowing how to handle a tricky boss (affectionately called ‘managing up’) is a critical part of successful career building in any profession. This person will help or hinder your chances of promotion, a pay rise or any other career steps you’re looking to make. They can also limit your actual ability if you aren’t mindful. Whilst there are some nuances to your behaviour which will need to be responsive to the the particular person, there are some key rules you can follow which will help you navigate the relationship and keep your sanity at the same time!!!
Lesson 1) Emotionally detach.
Accept that many managers don’t really care about your progression. Usually they care much more about themselves. In a way, we are all ego-maniacs, who are far more interested in our own success stories than those of others. Stars in our own movies. It’s therefore so important to detach in this relationship as it will impact the way you interact and allow you to be much more considered in your responses. This can be really tricky, especially if you’re someone who seeks genuine relationships in all other fields of your life. However, without removing emotion from this relationship you can end up exhausted and disappointed.
Lesson 2) Figure out how to use to their ego and ambitions.
One of the most powerful things you can understand about someone is what drives them. I mean this on both a professional and a personal level. For example, your manager might be obsessed with appearing ‘all over the detail’. Knowing this, you can make sure you always arm them with details ahead of them having catch ups with their manager. Or they may not care about their job and really just want to leave on time to see their children, in which case you can make sure you plan meetings before 5pm so as not to deal with them in an irritable state of mind, or maybe offering to cover them on a call so they can leave on time. I could go on with examples, but the critical thing is knowing where their focus lies and using that to your advantage.
Lesson 3) Don’t outshine the master.
Or phrased more specifically, don’t let your boss think you’re trying to outshine them. Feeling threatened by you could be a dangerous blow to their ego and could cause them to actively dislike you, or retaliate. I’m not suggesting that you need to be anything but your best, simply that you need to be selective about when you shine and think about how you credit your manager. There is every chance your poor manager’s superiors are already aware of their flaws and they’ll stumble all on their own. You can keep an eye out for opportunities to shine which don’t involve them, such as side projects or tasks with a different direct-report.
Lesson 4) Don’t be a doormat.
I’ve saved this rule til last because, whilst equally important, it works best alongside the others. If you’ve done a good job and got them, at least a little on-side, you’re in a more powerful position to be assertive. Its undoubtedly the case, that in trying to keep a tough manager happy you can end up bending over backwards and agreeing with their every decision, despite thinking internally its B-S. Unfortunately, this won’t make them like you any more. With some people you literally cannot win because they don’t want you to. Flexing to their every whim will be an exhausting pursuit. If you’re deserving of respect at times you need to demand it through displays of strength. A shift in manner or tone that says, too far. This is of particular value because it can safeguard your reputation and it is far easier to change a manager than it is a reputation.
Remember, the office is a social environment. It has set structures to make it run smoothly and, in theory, to keep everyone happy. You’re very unlikely to click with everyone there and you can be unlucky with your boss but its up to you to handle it. Focus on what is in your control: your management of them as a person. And finally, a plea. Remember what you’ve learned (or un-learned) from them and carry it forward. Management is an underrated skill and it’s essential if you want to make it to the C Suite.
“Whether I wish these things or not, they’re going to happen. And whether you benefit from them or not will depend upon your ability to see the message in your misfortunes.” – Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Roberts
Let me know if you found this helpful or any different situations you’ve experienced.
Lexy is a writer, DJ and marketing professional living in London. She is a gemini and a feminist who loves coffee and leopard print. Instagram.com/lexonthedecks