Serious lessons for managing your boss in the 21st century

January 6, 2017 | Op-Ed
By Dr. Clinton O. Longenecker

Several years ago, I started noticing a pattern of wherever I went, I was being approached by people who were struggling in their working relationships with their bosses. We all know that our bosses can impact our work lives in immeasurable ways. Working for a great boss can make going to work a great and rewarding experience. Conversely, working for a bad boss can be a nightmare and can create big trouble. So here’s a simple truth: The stronger our working relationship with our boss, the greater the likelihood of high performance and career success.

In previous research, I found that bad bosses come in a wide variety of types that include bosses who are egomaniacs, emotionally unintelligent, non-communicative, clueless, unrealistic, indecisive, mean-spirited and unscrupulous, just to name a few.

business logoSo what would you do if you find yourself working for a bad boss? Dr. Larry Fink, UT professor of management, and I recently conducted a series of focus groups with a cross-section of nearly 300 business leaders to explore this important issue. Here are some lessons that emerged:

Lesson #1: Accept the fact that you cannot change your boss. This is reality, not fatalistic. Each of us must adjust and adopt our own behavior to accommodate to the shortcomings and tendencies of our superiors as we are generally not in a position to change their behavior. To be successful, we must effectively adjust our style and approach to work to accommodate our boss’ style and shortcomings.

Lesson #2: Put yourself in your boss’ shoes. It is imperative to understand your boss’s performance goals and what your organization expects your boss to deliver. Understanding what your boss is up against can provide you with important insight into his or her behavior. Work hard to know and understand what your boss is being paid to deliver and the pressures that she or he is under from her or his superior.

Lesson #3:
Get on the same page with your boss. Once you know what your boss is being held accountable for, it is your job to get on the same page with your boss and identify the results that are needed to deliver to help your boss be successful! We must proactively realign our goals, roles and responsibilities with our boss to make sure that we are operating in concert with them.

Lesson #4: Work hard to know and understand your boss’ strengths and weaknesses. You and your boss are linked together, so it is really important to pay attention to his or her work habits, management style, and how he or she operates on a daily basis. Failing to know and understand your boss puts you at a disadvantage when developing strategies that will allow you to both play to his or her strengths and deal with shortcomings. Always know your boss’ strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies.

Lesson #5: Regularly assess the overall quality of your current relationship with your boss and determine strengths, weaknesses and opportunities. Taking the time to understand what is working well and what needs work is an important tactical step to identify the things that you need to do to better manage your boss. This assessment will put you in a better position to develop a game plan for improving your working relationship, and it is your responsibility to do so.

Lesson #6: Communicate using your boss’s rules. Learn how and when to communicate with your boss and how to best keep him or her informed. Know and understand your boss’s communication habits and practices, and do your best to communicate with her or him on her or his terms.

Lesson #7: Be proactive and keep aligned. Take the initiative to schedule regular alignment meetings with your boss to review and prioritize your current workload. Meet with him or her so he or she can provide you with input and feedback on your performance. Regular alignment sessions keep you on the same page and create opportunity to keep our bosses coaching and providing us with the information we need for success.

Lesson #8: Establish your brand and make it a practice to under-promise and over-deliver. Knowing and understanding how people at work, including your boss, perceive you is an important part of managing your relationship with your boss. Along the same lines, make it a practice to under-promise and over-deliver. Be known as a person who is easy to work with and who consistently delivers desired results.

Lesson #9: Be a problem-solver. Most of our bosses have a fair number of problems and issues on their plates, so when you do need to bring something to their attention, use your knowledge of your boss’s modus operandi to decide on the best time and place to do so. When approaching him or her, make sure that you properly frame the issue to make it easier for your boss to understand the problem. Then, take the time to offer up your ideas or your potential solution(s) to the difficulty. Be known by your boss as a person who is problem-solver.

Lesson #10: Show respect for your boss even if he or she might not deserve it. When you work for a bad boss, it is important to remember that this bad relationship is not taking place in a vacuum. Always show respect for your boss, and do not engage in gossip, backbiting, character assassination, or making your boss look bad behind his or her back. When word of bad-mannered behavior gets back to the boss, it can spell career disaster for the backstabber. Demonstrate respect for your boss regardless of how bad she or he might be and resist the temptation to undermine that person.

Lesson #11: Know when it’s time to go. Our final lesson circles back to our first: It is important to remember that there’s actually very little that you can do to change your boss. So if your boss has a destructive personality, or is openly disrespectful of you, or is damaging your performance, or is engaged in unscrupulous or illegal activities, you may need to remove yourself quickly. When your boss is performing in a fashion that makes work untenable, develop and execute your exit strategy ASAP.

Regardless of the type of boss you work for, I want to encourage each of you to think through these important lessons that can make life easier and put you in a better position to deliver desired results, which is the cornerstone of career success.

Longenecker is the Distinguished University Professor of Management and director of the Center for Leadership and Organizational Excellence. The study he and Dr. Laurence Fink, UT professor of management, conducted is titled “Serious Lessons for Managing Your Boss in the 21st Century,” which was published in a recent issue of Industrial Management.

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