Managing Up: Your Dilemmas Fixed

Written by Lesley Cowley Thursday 11 April 2019
The Answer to Email Addicts and Poisonous Promotions
An overbearing boss shouting at someone at a desk

Lesley Cowley OBE CCMI is chair of the DVLA and Companies House, and former CEO of Nominet. Here she answers questions about managing up, to boost your productivity and working style.


My manager is highly productive and often uses email on holiday and at weekends. This means he expects the same level of activity from me. How can I show that I am working productively and protect my work-life balance?

Lesley: An ‘always on’ culture does not necessarily mean that people are more productive – they just think they are because they never stop working.

If your manager works in this way, it may be difficult for him to understand that you are just as committed and productive as he is. I suggest you steer the conversation away from a focus on individual output and broaden it to cover wider performance. For example, you could create a team dashboard, including customer satisfaction ratings, volume statistics and other measures of success. He will then be able to easily see how well his team is doing (or not).


I have been offered a promotion in a different team. The team has a disorganised working style and I worry it would frustrate me. It also seems like the manager of that team does not understand the nature of my work. How could I make sure I still felt challenged and supported in this role?

Lesley: Congratulations, but is this promotion a poisoned chalice? Think very carefully. It sounds as if both the team and the manager will be problematic – and you may not be able to easily change their lack of organisation or understanding. A promotion can be attractive, as there is usually a shiny new title and a pay rise, but, if there will be problems right from the start, ask yourself if it’s the right promotion for you. How does it fit into your long-term career plan?

If you are determined to take this promotion, work closely with your new manager right from the start so that they understand your work and support you going forward. You might also benefit from a coach to help your development.


My manager is a micro-manager. He’ll check in constantly about progress, give constant feedback on the day-to-day tasks that are part of my role and sometimes overrule my decisions. He’s hugely supportive of my work but I feel stifled. How should I address this?

Lesley: It is good that your manager is ‘hugely supportive’, as the behaviours you report are usually an indication of a lack of confidence or trust. Alternatively, you might be in a ‘parent-child’ work situation where your manager is ‘parenting’ you with the best of intentions. Whatever the root cause, something needs to change.

I suggest that you introduce new ways of reporting to help him be better informed and reduce his need to check on progress so often, such as sending a daily project update email first thing every morning. If you do not have them already, you might also suggest a regular one-to-one where you review progress and plan ahead.

However, if there is not a change of behaviour, you will need an honest conversation with your manager in which you state the effect his approach is having. As a back-up, I recommend you update your CV, review your career plan and start thinking of alternative jobs where you will not be stifled.

Read more: what to do if you think you boss is incompetent


My manager is prone to changeable moods. He has a heavy workload and it can make him very difficult to approach and unpleasant. I have raised this with him and he says “it’s a busy time”, but the moods continue. Am I being too sensitive?

Lesley: I’m assuming that your manager has not always been like this, but it sounds like he has become overloaded and is stressed as a result. You are understandably concerned. This is a time when he needs team support. It is good that you have raised your concerns with him, so I suggest that you follow up with practical suggestions. Can he delegate more? Could you re-engineer processes? Could he appoint a deputy? I’m sure you can think of others.

Lesley Cowley OBE CCMI

Lesley Cowley OBE CCMI

is chair of the DVLA and Companies House, and former CEO of Nominet