Managing your Manager

Posted by Cara Scharf on June 16, 2011

Throughout your career, you'll probably encounter bosses whose personalities clash with yours, or whose management and people skills are virtually non-existent. In most cases, you'll cope and do your job. But some bosses will wind you up so tight that your work and life will suffer-you may worry yourself sick, dread going to work, or even want to quit.

If your supervisor is making you miserable, it might be time to be proactive about improving your situation-and start managing your boss.

Most employees are reluctant to speak up lest they ruffle feathers and jeopardize their jobs. However, the best way to resolve a problem is to get it out in the open. "Don't assume your boss knows something is wrong," says Andrea Kay, career consultant and author of Work's a Bitch and Then You Make It Work. "If you approach the situation right, your boss should be open to and appreciate the opportunity to improve."

Tactful and clear communication is crucial. Present evidence of the problem, examples of how it affects your work, and suggestions to improve the situation. This approach ensures that you're focusing on work instead of your emotions, giving constructive feedback, and not playing the blame game. And refrain from a direct attack on your boss; whether you like it or not, he or she is in charge.

Here are some common bad boss behaviors, and tips for how to overcome each one-keeping the above elements in mind.


A boss who is always over your shoulder can make you nervous and stifle your progress. Consider that your boss might lack confidence in you: Do you often drop the ball on projects or ask the same questions? If not, assert your autonomy, says Marilyn Haight, author of Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Boss and creator of "Let your boss know that you're a trained, capable professional."

Try This: "I appreciate your attentiveness, though I sense you lack confidence in me and that causes me to constantly question my work. If my performance worries you, could you offer some advice as to how I can improve? And perhaps we can meet weekly to review my work instead of every day."

Lack of Management
You've yet to receive a performance review and you've been at the company three years. A boss who is never around or never gives you feedback can be frustrating because you'll never know if you're doing a good job or how to improve.

Try This: "I really want to be the best employee I can be, but I can't tell if I am meeting your expectations. Can you help define some targets for my performance? And it would be great if we could set up a time each week to make sure I'm meeting those goals."

Resistance to Change
Still using a typewriter? Your boss may fear new ideas. Still, he may have valid objections-there might not be a budget for upgrades or he might not realize the benefit of certain improvements. Show that your idea is worthwhile, and see what concerns your manager has so you can address them. 

Try This:"Our department and bottom line would improve if we used this new technology. It would initially cost X, but we'd cut costs over six months by Y, and cut down our work time. If you let me know your concerns, maybe I can create a proposal that we both agree on."

Constantly Critical
If your boss does nothing but condemn your work, you may feel upset and lose confidence. "Think about how you want to be reviewed and have that in the back of your mind," says Kay. "When you speak to your boss, don't put them down; instead, recognize the feedback and ask what you are doing well."  

Try This: "I'm grateful for your feedback, though it'd be great to hear some specifics for how I can improve. Perhaps you can help identify some particular instances where I didn't meet your expectations. I'd also appreciate hearing what I'm doing right, so I can keep doing it." 

Downright Discriminatory

You should never feel you're being discriminated against or harassed at work because of your race, religion, gender, age, etc. There are laws to protect you from this. First, if you feel your manager has been discriminatory toward you, immediately inform him or her of this. If the behavior persists, file a written report to a more senior supervisor or HR manager with evidence (and witness corroboration if possible). If internal procedures don't resolve the problem to your satisfaction, go outside the company and file a harassment complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Take Note

In all of these cases, but especially the last case, you should keep a written record of your dialogue. Take notes, send a follow up email to your boss after you meet, or create a list of action points with your boss, laying out how the issue will be resolved.

One conversation might be all it takes to affect change, but in some cases you'll have to be persistent and change your approach. If things still haven't changed after you've done all you can, consider whether you can live with your bad boss or if it's best to move on.

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