Managing conflict up: How to handle a problem manager

13 September 2019 -

Woman Holding Head in HandsFive practical insights about leadership – the other way around

Ian Wylie

For many managers, the main ingredient in job satisfaction is not salary, benefits, work-life balance or the office gym – It’s the relationship with their boss. As the saying goes, people don’t quit jobs; they quit bosses.

Perhaps your manager is too hands-off, or too micromanaging; maybe he or she is indecisive or has bad judgment; or it could be that they’re simply not as smart and capable as you are and find that threatening. Whatever their shortcomings, it’s in your best interests, and it’s probably your responsibility, to make the relationship work. It’s also a measure of your interpersonal excellence, as per CMI’s Professional Standards and Competency Framework.

Keep your temper

Getting angry at an incompetent boss can prevent us from making smart and strategic choices, says Mary Abbajay, author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss. By substituting anger with empathy you can put yourself in your manager’s shoes. And don’t just moan about them. Find confidants – a trusted colleague, a spouse, a mentor, or a coach – to whom you can explain what you are seeing, how it’s impacting you and your work, and seek objective perspectives that will enable you to make better choices in your role.

Diagnose the problem correctly

Before you judge your boss unfit for purpose, take a good look at yourself and any biases or blind spots you may have, advises Annie McKee, founder of the Teleos Leadership Institute. Seek a better understanding of your boss and of yourself – each of your strengths, weaknesses, work styles, goals and pressures. Consider also whether you have all of the relevant information: your manager may have stressors or pressure points you don’t see or fully understand – they may not be visible because a good manager will try to protect you from them.

Talk more

Work on improving the two-way communication with your manager so you can share your priorities and receive feedback on a regular basis. Take time to put together a brief summary of last week’s actions and a quick plan for the next week. By communicating work progress, you'll be able to spot roadblocks early on and get things done faster.

Manage up

Once you’ve pinpointed the major deficiencies, focus on what you can do to fill in the gaps. It’s the calling of managers and leaders to understand what your organisation needs and to then step up to make it happen, says Michael Useem, Professor of management at the Wharton School. Find opportunities to compensate for your boss's weakness. Offer to cover for her when she is out. Proactively provide information that will help him. Offer to take on more responsibility and projects. Help teach them what they need to know.

Protect yourself 

Managing your manager works best if you frame requests and interactions around your needs, rather than trying to tell someone who is not self-aware that they aren’t self-aware, says McKee. Instead, be specific about what you want: her input on your work, an introduction to another colleague, or his permission to reach out to a client. McKee also suggests creating psychological boundaries that protect you from any emotional damage. Remember that you have influence and choices in this situation: you can decide whether to stay or not, whether to be a victim or a leader. Focus on what makes you happy about your job, not miserable.

With the right mindset and a few practical tools, it is possible to not only survive but flourish under a bad manager. Of course, you shouldn’t suffer indefinitely – but only once you’ve tried these strategies should you consider looking for a transfer to a new boss or a new employer.

CMI Companion and columnist Lesley Cowley has written regularly about the challenges of managing up and incompetent bosses. If you enjoyed this, we think you’ll enjoy her other articles.

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