Taming the beast: how to manage your boss

Remind you of anyone?In Stanley Bing’s book, Throwing the Elephant: The Zen and Art of Managing Up, he likens bosses to elephants. They’re both hedonistic. They both make a lot of noise. They play by their own rules and take pride in their size and power. They have short attention spans. They’re “terrific bullshit artists”. And perhaps most importantly, they cannot be ignored.

I asked Bing for the ways in which employees can tame the elephant at work, or rather, how to manage their manager. He had three (quite manipulative) suggestions.

1. “Probe his or her personality for insecurities and feed them. Once they are stoked to fever pitch, soothe them.”

So what are the symptoms of an insecure leader? In Building your Leadership Resumé, Johnny Hunt lists several characteristics. An insecure leader, he writes, rarely gives credit to others, keeps information from staff, and often micromanages. If those signs are present, chances are the boss lacks confidence.

2. “Create the perception that there are problems and crises that only you can solve. Then solve them.”

Many employees do the opposite. They take problems to their boss in the hope the boss will solve those issues. Greater respect is earned when employees have a list of potential solutions already prepared. Bing’s advice, that problems and crises should be feigned, could backfire if you’re seen as a drama queen.

3. “Do all the jobs that he or she doesn’t want to do. This frees your boss for ‘executive’ thinking and behaviour, and gives you control of the work flow.”

It’s a tip in line with the views of Rosanne Badowski. She was Jack Welch’s assistant at GE for 14 years before writing a book titled Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship With Those Above You, in which she suggests employees should do more than the tasks on their job description. This, she theorises, makes the boss’ job easier and gets the employees to be perceived as indispensable.

For an alternative perspective, I asked John Baldoni for his thoughts. He’s a bestselling author of several leadership books, including Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. He had three suggestions:

1. “Understand what your boss wants to accomplish. Then ask how you can help him or her do it.”

Much of what occurs in the corporate world is a selling game. You’re selling ideas to managers, selling change to employees, and ultimately, selling yourself and your personal brand. It necessitates one of the oldest marketing tricks: discover an underlying need and provide a solution.

2. “Be resourceful. Those who successfully rise in an organisation are those who anticipate change and make it work for them. Look for opportunities to demonstrate initiative and do so in concert with your boss.”

In an article Baldoni wrote for the Harvard Business Review, he states the first step must be to remain open-minded about what can be achieved with limited resources. The person who says “we can do this” always trumps the one who sees restrictions rather than possibilities.

3. “Do your job well. To lead up you must be competent in your job, have credibility with your colleagues, and have confidence in your abilities.”

In other words, be brilliant. But how? In his book The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk writes that the problem people face isn’t one of having too little talent; it’s of having too much – and “our inability, so far, to tap into what we already have”. Talent, he says, isn’t something that simply exists within us. It’s a process we need to work on, and the only way to develop it is by practicing it repeatedly.

So that’s how to manage up. Of course, you could always just choose to be self-employed. But even then you’re still managing up, only this time it’s clients, investors, and other stakeholders. There’s always an elephant in the office.

Do you try to manage your manager? If so, how?

Follow James Adonis on Twitter  @jamesadonis

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