You’ve heard it said and you know it’s true: People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses.
For many people, the primary ingredient in job satisfaction is not the quality of food in the lunchroom. It’s not the office layout or equipment. It’s not even the workload, salary, or benefits. It’s the relationship with the boss. In fact, one study showed that 65% of workers surveyed would choose a new boss over a pay raise.
Many organizations still promote people because of their technical success rather than for management skills. To compound the problem, many new managers receive little or no training before jumping into their new roles. This makes for unhappy campers in the workplace.
But as an alternative to the futile search for the perfect boss, you might consider working better with the boss you have.
That’s the premise of Mary Abbajay’s new book MANAGING UP: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.
A seasoned leadership development consultant, Abbajay offers tips on how to deal with some of the most perplexing challenges in the workplace.
Rodger Dean Duncan: There seem to be countless books, TED talks, workshops and YouTube videos on how to lead and manage downward. But your book provides one of the few treatments on how to manage upward. Why is there such an imbalance?
Mary Abbajay: The simple truth is that in America, nobody wants to think of himself as a “follower.” We are obsessed with leadership. It’s part of our cultural and sociological narrative and identity. We talk incessantly about leadership. We teach it, we preach it, we spend more than $14 billion a year on it. But we rarely spend much time discussing or validating the other (and equally important) side of the relationship: followership.
Many of us resist being a follower because we think being a follower is being a patsy. We confuse followership with powerlessness. We conflate it with passivity and submissiveness. We think followership robs us of agency. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we reframe followership from a power construct into a relational construct, we open up a wide world of choice and agency. In a relationship, everybody has agency. So, while we might dislike the idea of being a follower, the truth is that the majority of us spend more of our working time following than leading. Even a CEO must be a follower, too. Everybody has a boss.
Duncan: Most every leader was once a follower. What are the two or three key things a follower should learn (and practice) in preparation for being an effective leader?
Abbajay: Leadership in the 21st century is much more about influence than authority, so learning to appreciate and adapt to people with different perspectives, priorities, and personalities is a key skill to develop. Managing up allows you to practice navigating and influencing people who approach work differently than you. Learn how to look beyond your own needs and perspectives and consider the needs and perspectives of others. If nothing else, by managing up, you will learn what kind of manager you want to be and what kind of manager you don’t want to be.
Duncan: For some people, the notion of “managing up” sounds like manipulation or becoming a sycophant. You use the term to mean taking charge of one’s workplace experience. When you teach people that this kind of empowerment is a choice, what kind of push-back do you receive?
Abbajay: People push back for a myriad of reasons. Most of these reasons come down to three things: ego, fixed perspective, and resistance to change.
Ego shows when we get caught up in the need to be right—e.g. we say things like “my boss should…”, “my boss needs to…”, etc. Our ego prevents us from widening our perspective. We get trapped in our own view, needs, wants.
Our fixed perspective prevents us from considering alternative choices and we may find ourselves trapped in our own cloud of bitterness. While we actually may be totally right, the truth is that your boss isn’t going to change. All we can do is change our reaction and our interaction.
Which brings us to the last reason, resistance to change. Managing up requires us to adapt and change our approach. It requires extra effort and moving out of our comfort zone. Change is hard. Most of us would prefer the other to change!
Duncan: When organizations promote people for technical skills instead of managerial skills, the unintended result can be a technical expert who’s a total bust as a manager. What are some proven strategies to “manage up” an incompetent?
Abbajay: Whether it’s due to poor people skills, inexperience, or a lack of managerial aptitude, an incompetent manager doesn’t have to derail your career. While specific strategies depend on the individual situation, consider the following approaches:
De-escalate your anger: Having an incompetent boss can be infuriating. But when we operate from a place of anger and resentment, our reptile brain takes over and clouds us from making smart and strategic choices. Let go of the anger and replace it with empathy, compassion, or even humor. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes. How would you feel if you were elevated into a position that you weren’t qualified for? How would you want your team to treat you? This perspective will enable you to make strategic choices.
Diagnose the incompetence: Try to figure out exactly how the incompetence shows up. Does she lack experience? Does he have poor emotional intelligence? Is her decision-making poor? Does he not hold people accountable? Is she really incompetent or does she just do things differently than you? If you can pinpoint and prioritize the problems, you and your team can create targeted strategies to address the deficiency.
Compensate and cover: Once you’ve pinpointed the major deficiencies, make and enact strategies to compensate. Yes, this requires extra effort. No, this isn’t fair. But letting an incompetent boss derail your career isn’t fair either. Look for opportunities to shine by doing great work and becoming your boss’s biggest asset. 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. Use your interactions to help teach them what they need to know.
Take the long view: Try not to worry if your boss gets the credit for your successful projects. Success gets noticed, and in organizations that usually means the team and/or department gets noticed too. Make your boss and your team look good and you will look good as well. Plus, people aren’t stupid—everyone probably already knows that you are the success engine behind your incompetent boss.
Learn what you can: If your boss is technically competent, take the time to learn about her technical expertise. Use this opportunity to hone your technical skills.
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