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Managing Your Boss

By Marty Nemko

The key to managing your boss is to observe her closely enough that you can answer these questions. Then behave accordingly.

1. In doing a project for your boss, it’s usually more important to be:

a. thorough

b. quick

2. In making a point, which would most impress your boss? (Mark all that are key):

a. a data-based argument

b. a logical argument

c. an emotional appeal

d. an idea that would improve the organization’s bottom line

e. suggesting it will make the world better

f. suggesting it will improve employee relations

g. suggesting that the boss will get kudos for it.

h. suggesting that it will make the boss’s life easier

i. other (specify):

With your boss, it’s wiser to:

3a. Make minimum impositions on his time OR

3b. Ask lots of questions and keep him regularly apprised.

4a. Solicit your boss’s feedback early and often OR

4b. Wait for your boss’s feedback, knowing she will offer enough of it.

5a. Ask your boss for training OR

5b. Wait for your boss to offer it, knowing he’ll offer plenty.

If you hate your boss

This approach has helped many of my clients to improve their relationship with their boss:

1. Assess whether the problem is your boss or you

In articles such as this, there’s an unspoken rule: the supervisee is right and the boss is wrong, but fact is, most bosses have been made bosses for a reason. Sure, sometimes they only got picked because of the ol’ boy’s or new girl’s network, to fill a quota, or because they’re sleeping with a higher-up. But, on average, bosses are brighter, more knowledgeable, and harder working than the average bear.

So, before undertaking a campaign to improve or dump your boss, look inward:

· You may hate your boss micromanaging you, but could that be because you need micromanaging?

· You may resent your boss being closed to your ideas, but could that be because your ideas are rarely good?

· You may despise your boss’s hot-headedness but could it be that you’d annoy most competent bosses?

· Are you holding your boss to a standard that’s unrealistic: are you always so smart, hard-working, and well-adjusted?

If you’re not sure whether the problem is mainly you or your boss, I urge you to ask your colleagues for a candid evaluation. I know that’s hard to do, but that feedback can be invaluable.

2. Trying to improve your boss
Assuming your boss really is the boss from hell, yes, you might want to try to get her fired (See below), but first consider trying one or more of these:
If your boss is overly controlling

If he’s that way with all his supervisees, take solace in the fact that it’s not personal and do your best to remain open to his input. Often, bosses micromanage because they are very competent and want to spread that to others.

If your boss is only micromanaging you and perhaps a small percentage of other supervisees, you might say something like, “I’ve noticed that you give me more direction and seem to require more reporting from me than from others. That makes me worry that I’m not doing as good a job as you’d like. Can you suggest anything that might help me gain your confidence?”

If your boss is a hothead

Temper tends to be a hard-wired characteristic, a physiological tendency to secrete an above-average amount of adrenaline in response to a troubling event. If you realize that hotheadedness is a disease, you may be better able to withstand your boss’s intensity without feeling devastated or needing to lash back. Try your best to let her finish a tirade, which will drain her excess adrenaline. Then, if she hasn’t already said what she wants you to do, in the calmest voice you can muster, say something like, “Going forward, is there something you think I should do now?” If you believe her suggestion is ill-advised, (perhaps because her adrenaline is still talking), consider letting it go for the moment, say something like, “I’m sorry I disappointed you,” leave as soon as possible, reflect on what might be a better approach, and finally, submit it in writing or in-person when she’s calmer.

In any case, try to do as much communication with your hotheaded boss in writing—it’s less likely she’ll lose her temper in writing.

If your boss is unintelligent. You have two options. If he’s open to input, tactfully offer it while allowing him to save face. For example, say something like, “You know, I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking about X. Would you like me to write you a one-pager on it?”

3. Should you try to get your boss fired?

The more these statements are true, the more likely you should try to get your boss fired:

  • You’ve tried the above and seen too little improvement
  • Your boss is so wimpy or powerless that she doesn’t get needed resources or make tough decisions.
  • Your boss is dishonest or unethical, for example, steals credit for your work.
  • Your boss is lazy.
  • You find her weaknesses intolerable.
  • Most of your co-workers would prefer another boss.
  • You prefer the person who would likely replace your boss.
  • You’d have input into selecting your next boss.
  • Your boss’s allies are unlikely to retaliate against you.

If most of your boss’s supervisees and perhaps others would like to see your boss replaced, go after him as a group. That’s more likely to be successful and less likely to result in reprisals against any individual.

To build a case against your boss, all of you should contribute to a dated list of her offenses: when she failed to keep promises, didn’t produce needed work, did an inadequate job, acted unprofessionally, etc., plus your attempts to improve her. If you can’t recall enough offenses, document her offenses for the next month. When you’ve assembled a compelling collection, decide whether to first show it to your boss to give her one more chance, or whether you should send it to her boss, perhaps sending a copy to her. Your documentation should include a brief cover letter, for example:

Dear (Insert the name of your boss’s boss),

It is only after a great deal of discussion and effort that we have concluded that our supervisor (insert name) seriously impedes our work unit from being as effective as it could be and is unlikely to improve sufficiently. We enclose a list of examples and the feedback we’ve given him. We urge you to consider dismissing him or transferring him to a position in which he might be better suited.

Should you require additional information, we’d be pleased to meet with you as a group.


(Insert signatures)

Moving On

If your boss is intolerable and doesn’t seem to be exiting any time soon, before leaving your organization, see if you might want to angle for a transfer. Keep your eyes open and you may discover one or more bosses who are respected by higher-ups and supervisees alike, are great at mentoring, and a pleasure to work for. If it’s infeasible to ask your boss for a transfer, try this: In the breakroom, elevator, a meeting, etc., say something to your desired boss such as, “Hello, David. I’m Marty Nemko, I’m currently a marketing assistant over in the WiFi division. I’ve heard great things about you. It’s nice to meet you.” If the conversation presents an opportunity, say something like, “I’d love to work for you. If now or at some point, there might be an opportunity, even if just on a one-time basis to help you out on a project, I’d be happy to.” It may sound simplistic, but asking for what you want is key to your career success and happiness.

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