how to manage your boss

If you’re like most people, you have frustrations with your boss. If you’re lucky, they’re only occasional; if you’re not lucky, they might be daily. But whether it’s a boss who always cancels meetings with you or one who micromanages your every move, the secret to working together harmoniously – as well as keeping your own sanity – might be to put more effort into managing up.

It’s easy to fall into a pattern of stewing over an aspect of your boss that you can’t change, but it’s far more productive to find focus on making the pieces of the situation that you can control go as smoothly as possible. Here’s how.

If your manager always cancels your meetings, leaving you with the face time you need in order to move projects forward…

You probably can’t force your manager to stop this admittedly irritating behavior, but there are different actions that you could try on your own end that might get better outcomes. For instance, you might consider asking to move your check-in to a time that your manager is less likely to cancel, or you could try sending heran agendaahead of time as a reminder of the meeting and to demonstrate that you’re being thoughtful about how you’re using her time. Or you could simply try saying,  “I know you’re really busy – but even though we can’t do our regular meeting this week, can I get 10 minutes on your calendar?”

You also might anticipate that she’s likely to cancel your meeting and, as a safety measure, grab her for two minutes after this week’s staff meeting to ask your most pressing questions  – thus preventing yourself from having work held up if she does cancel again.

If your boss micromanages you – wanting to be involved in every little thing you do…

If your boss is micromanaging you, the first thing to do is to step back and analyze – as dispassionately as you can – whether the problem might actually be you. If you’ve dropped the ball on things more often than occasionally, forgotten details, missed deadlines, or produced work that requires significant changes from others, a good manager wouldbecome more hands-on with your work.

But if you’re confident none of that is the case, think about how you might preempt your boss’s extreme need for control. Can you set up weekly reporting or weekly meetings, get aligned with her about the types of issues that you’ll loop her in on, and otherwise create systems that will assure you that she’ll have opportunities for the type of input she wants? You might also try a direct conversation with her, giving examples of projects where you could have worked more effectively if you weren’t on such a short leash, and asking if she’ll experiment with giving you more autonomy an upcoming project and see how it goes.

If your manager is always critical of you…

If your manager seems to find fault with everything you do, inviting more criticism is probably the last thing you want to do – but, counter-intuitively, doing that can actually help ease some of it. Try requesting feedback earlier in the process, to give yourself a chance to spot difference of perspective while you still have time to course-correct. And preemptively ask to debrief projects together after they’re over – being sure to start with your own take on what went well and what you’d do differently next time – because initiating this conversation will often take some of the wind out of the sails of a perpetual critic.

If your manager doesn’t read her email or get back to you when you need her response in order to move work forward…

While you can’t chain your boss to her computer (although it might be tempting), you might get better results if you can find ways to word your emails so it’s easier for her to give input with a quick yes/no. You can also try saying, “I know you get a ton of emails and documents for review. Is there a way for me to make it easier for you to give input? I was thinking it might be easier to review if I brought it to our meetings, or maybe there’s some of it that I can move forward on my own.”

Additionally, look for ways other than email to communicate with your boss, such as saving items up for in-person conversations or leaving a voicemail explaining how you plan to move forward if you don’t hear from her by the end of the week.

If your boss is always changing her mind…

If your boss habitually tells you one thing and then moves in a different decision, you’re probably frustrated and afraid to put too much work into any one project for fear that she’ll change course and your work will be wasted.

One thing that can help minimize this on your end is to make a point of talking through all the pros and cons with your boss before decisions are made – and especially pointing out potential downsides so they’re thoroughly considered before work moves forward. You can also try sending her an email summarizing decision that have been made, reminding her of what you decided on, and letting her know what next steps you’ll be taking and what your timeline is for taking them. When a flip-floppers knows that you’re planning to swing into action tomorrow, they’re often more likely to really think through the plan before committing.

If your manager keeps piling work on you and has unreasonable expectations of how much you can get done…

You might assume that your manager realizes the size of your full workload … but managers often don’t track staffers’ workloads and instead just assume that you’ll speak up if things become unmanageable.

That means that if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you shouldn’t just suffer in silence. Let your manager know that your workload has become unmanageable and suggest some options for addressing it. For instance, you might say, “I can do X and Y, but not Z. Or if Z is really important, I’d want to move X off my plate to make room for it. Or I could act as an advisor to Karen on X, but I can’t do Z myself if I’m also doing X and Y.”

If your manager resists making these kinds of choices and trade-offs, try saying, “I hear you that we want it all to get done, but since I’m can’t keep it all moving at the same time, I want to make smart choices about how I’m structuring my time and ensure that you and I are aligned on those choices.” You can also trying coming up with your own proposal for what you intend to do and not do, and run that by her.

And if all else fails, try including a “back burner/not getting to yet” section on your reporting to your manager to note that while you may not be getting through every item on your plate yet, you haven’t forgotten about them.

If your manager often undermines or reverses your decisions…

Usually when a manager reverses your decisions, it’s because you moved forward without first getting aligned with her about how to approach a particular issue. You can fix that by talking explicitly and regularly about potentially tricky situations – like a difficult client or an obstacle with an allied organization. By talking through how you plan to handle these sorts of situations, you’ll get in sync up-front and will be able to act with more confidence – knowing that you won’t be unpleasantly surprised to learn that your boss had an entirely different take on the topic than you did.

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. ClaireS*

    Getting answers to emails is a big one (and not just from your boss). I’ve found that a surprisingly number of people aren’t explicit about exactly what they want you to do when they send you an email. Do you need me to review and approve, do you need me to just be aware, do you need me to find that file? It seems so basic but I see many emails that are long and unclear on actions required.

    Sometimes in my email I actually write: action required and then make a list.

    1. Puddin*

      Ditto – I also put it in the subject line with the due date.

      There are three types of emails in my book: FYI, Seeking Info/Input and Action Needed. I try to make sure that I always put those words in the subject and in the body of the email. I “brand” my emails this way. It seems to work pretty well with all depts I interact with except IT for some reason. But that is another topic for another day.

    2. Katie the Fed*

      I came here to add this. I struggle a lot with getting through all my emails – I get a TON every day and it’s a full time job just to triage it.

      Just tell me up front what you want from me. Is this an FYI, do you need a response, what? WHAT DO YOU WANT?

      1. Hooptie*

        One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone sends an email with the Subject: Question

        That’s it – just ‘Question’. It drives me crazy – give me an idea of what you are looking for so that I have a better grasp on how urgent it is that I respond.

    3. LQ*

      I love these emails. I’ve been known to send emails back to coworkers with a “good for you” when they send me a really long email without asking for what they want. (That would be overly snarky in most environments.) But sometimes I’ll reply with “What specifically do you need from me.”

      I always “demote” a message that is just an FYI to my boss, I asked him once if that worked well and apparently he thinks it is great. Low priority emails are awesome.

      1. ClaireS*

        Not enough people use the “less important” indicator in Microsoft office. I need to use it more…

      2. Sunshine*

        I’d love if my people would use that feature. Except I don’t know anyone at my company who thinks there is such a thing as “low priority”. I’ve even seen people who mark every email as urgent. Every single one. And they never are.

      3. Arjay*

        I wish I could respond with “Good for you!” I was recently covering some tasks for a coworker who was on vacation. People would send me things that clearly needed action, but the message they wrote was along the lines of “Attached is the blah, blah, blah.” I had to highly edit my knee-jerk response of “That’s great, I love attachments! What do you want me to do with it?”

  2. Niki*

    the action required list is such a good idea. Often my boss will e-mail me such open ended messages. It always leaves me e-mailing her back a lot or going to her with a lot of questions which makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

  3. Heather*

    With my previous boss, who was a high flyer and wrote emails in cryptic code, I would ensure that I cornered him for five minutes asking him, ‘What do you need to know, what do I need to know?’ This insured that I could do my job while not getting frustrated in turn, looking like a superstar because I got things done/right the first time. I know I gained more respect.

  4. Barbara in Swampeast*

    My boss was always changing her mind. We would get a report done one way, then she would come back two or three times changing stuff. Drove me crazy to redo the same thing over and over again. When she left for greener pastures, I reported to her boss, Big Boss, until her replacement started. I discovered the reason for all the changes was her reaction to Big Boss. I quickly realized that no matter how well I did a project, Big Boss would always want to put his stamp on it. So I basically turned in good drafts with all the info and let him polish it up, because that was what he did. My boss had tried to give him a polished, finished projects and when he gave his input she would try to incorporate them and then add something “better” which he didn’t want. I think she desperately wanted to submit something to him the first time and have him go, “This is great! We will go with this!” It was never going to happen.

    The only time I have “managed” my manager was at a small cable company with a cash flow problem. I would cut the checks and my manager would sign some right away and others she would put in drawer and sign over the next several weeks or months. Some she wouldn’t release until the vendor called. Called me, that is. After a year I learned how long she would hold on to checks and how long it would be before certain vendors would call. So I would cut certain checks a couple weeks before I would have normally to start the “drawer-clock” ticking and usually they would come out before the vendor called. Don’t know if she ever caught on to what I was doing, but I got fewer collection calls.

  5. hayling*

    My boss is always pushing back meetings. I have gotten in the habit of IMing her about 10 minutes prior to the scheduled start to find out if we are going to start on time.

    1. BeenThere*

      I absolutely despise having to do this however it may be needed with current boss. This week I’d driven into the office deliberately early for a conference call. I dial in expecting no one on the line yet because it’s a minute before it’s due to start, them I am greeted by my manager who had invited me to the original meeting. I though how refreshing he is early for once.. then he opened his mouth and questioned if I need to use the conference bridge. as they were currently doing a demo. (I swear I actually saw flashing of red in my vision at this point) I said, I’m dialing into the XYZ meeting you invited me to. pause. There was no apology just a oh I’ll move that meeting to Thursday. I was livid, he knows I start later (he starts around the same time in a different timezone) and that traffic is horrendous in Houston before I normally arrive, hence my aversion to early starts. If there is any saving grace his manage was in town at this meeting so hopefully he looked like a total arse.

      At least karma paid me back for getting back to business and doing some solid work that day rather than going on a job hunt rage, a package I’d be waiting for arrived and as I had started early I could leave early to go pick it up.

  6. Reality Bites*

    I really don’t like this concept. I just don’t understand why I have to manage up, especially when I have managers with such “important” titles like VP. If I have to manage up or manage my manager I feel I should be compensated far more than I am since aren’t they supposed to have these competencies anyhow…

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Managing up isn’t managing in the same sense that your manager manages you; it’s about finding ways to work as effectively as possible with your manager, so that you minimize stress and frustration on your side.

      1. Matt*

        No, it’s harder. Subordinates who have to actively manage a manager have a harder job they are not compensated for. We become mind readers, reminders, and decipher what is they want.

        If you have to manage a manager a lot- they’re not good manager.

        1. Legal mind*

          You are describing the process exactly right. The collateral goes beyond the extra work of mind reading, reminding and deciphering. There is also the interactions with third parties in the company that are impacted. It places the employee in a no win situation.

        2. Katie the Fed*

          This is just basic human communication though – what we’re talking about is moderating your communication style to have the best effect. As a manager I do this with my subordinates. I can’t talk to two employees the exact same way. A comment that will motivate one will have the other in tears.

          Workplaces are full of people. If you’re going to do well, you need to learn to communicate well with people. I really appreciate my employees who take a bit of effort to make things a little easier for me like telling me what response they want/need on an email, etc. They recognize that I’m often pulled in 20 directions and am not perfect, so they help me by making it easier on me.

        3. majigail*

          As a manager, I hate this definition of the term. My employees are not here to manage me. I’ve got this. Alison’s definition of finding ways to work better with your manager’s style is good, not only in this context but with peers and subordinates.
          For instance, if you really need something from me now, don’t call my office line. I’m by that phone 10% of my day. My employees know that they need to email or come find me. An employee that insists on using that phone is going to be disappointed.

          1. Legal mind*

            When I’ve read the phrasing else where, it means filling in gaps for a lack of management bc a manager lacks competence as a manager. For example, expecting new employees to know your expectations without communicating the expectations to them would be a situation that may give rise to a problem in management and, as a consequence, employee performance.

  7. Legal mind*

    There are limits to how much one can manage up. I tried in a temporary attorney position to set up meetings, to communicate by emails, mentioned ” hey can I get feed back ” informally and suggested “hey can we meet for lunch when you have free time” This was over a period of three months that she , a fellow lawyer who works in a Fortune 500 company, avoided me .I was rewarded by her running away from me in the halls , avoiding eye contact and my being fired though a phone call from the agency and claims by the boss that she had talked to me extensively. Even the agency admitted I had mentioned in passing my concerns about the lack of communication.

  8. James M*

    This is probably not commonplace, but what do you do when your boss is strangely risk averse considering the riskiness of business processes that he has (presumably) OKed? It’s hard to explain in general terms so an analogy would be like a chain smoker balking at chewing saccharin sweetened gum because of the cancer risk. (in keeping with the analogy, I can’t stop him from smoking because I’m just a single mild-mannered mere mortal).

  9. Pat*

    @Alison

    I clicked through the article, which was all good stuff, but when I got to the last page chromium immediately blocked access and gave me a big red warning:

    “Chromium has blocked access to http://www.player.com.diasgd.com. This website has been reported as a phishing website. Phishing websites are designed to trick you into disclosing your login, password or other sensitive information by disguising themselves as other websites you may trust.”

    I went to check if the effect could be repeated, and now on the first page I get a warning, except it’s “http://www.player.com.lep.mobi” instead of .diasgd.com.

    Methinks there be a problem on the daily worth (or with one of the ads they’re showing) that they may need a heads up about.

  10. AnotherTeacher*

    Another good resource for this topic is Working for You Isn’t Working for Me by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster.

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