These tactics are the smartest way to manage up and get what you want at work.
If you’re stuck working under a bad boss, you’ve likely been told to learn how manage up. Articles on this topic praise effective communication. They advise you to make sure you understand your boss’s expectations so you can keep them informed, avoid surprises and provide solutions when problems arise. This is fairly good advice if your boss is always sane and cooperative.
But what if you work for a dictator? What if your boss is a control freak who’s overly competitive and often moody? Every effort to communicate does nothing to help achieve your goals — or worse, creates obstacles.
Strong communication skills are not enough to manage up. Traditional advice on managing up usually underestimates two realities: power and conflict.
The “up” in “managing up” refers to power. Power is not a simple, up/down, one-dimensional force. And since you’re the one looking “up,” you have less power. But having less power does not render you powerless. You have more opportunities to influence a dictator than you may think.
And then there are those understated references to conflict. You and your boss don’t see “eye to eye” or you’re not always “on the same page.” Often the situation is much worse. Your boss yells at you, places impossible demands on your time, or tells you not only what to do, but how to do it. This minute-by-minute conflict erodes your soul over time.
To effectively “manage up” –– or to say it bluntly, influence the dictators who would run your life 24/7 if you let them, you need to take matters into your own hands. Here are a few tips to manage up to difficult boss to get what you want. (Click here to tweet this list.)
1. Get strategic in your conflicts
Conflict is pointless unless you have something to gain. You have to want something. Maybe your goal is a promotion or to simply keep your job until you find a better one. Your goal may be to outlast this boss or to get transferred to another part of the company. Without goals, conflict is an exhausting treadmill. Once you’ve defined exactly what you’re trying to accomplish, then you can develop a strategic plan to get there.
2. Tackle each conflict differently
If you treat all conflicts similarly, you’ll fail most of the time. With each situation, manager or project, identify what type of conflict you’re dealing with. Use these three questions to diagnose the conflict:
- Is the other party cooperative or competitive? (In other words, to what extent do your goals overlap?)
- Who has more power? (For managing up, what sources of power do you have that do not show up on the organizational chart?)
- How much do you need the other party to achieve my goals? (Or, what can you get done without my boss?)
Diagnosing situations correctly will help you be more effective in your managing up strategy. A better understanding of power and conflict reveals hidden opportunities to “borrow” power from others and reach your goals.
3. Get used to appeasing your boss
Appeasement is an awful word. It connotes weak and surrendering. Over time, appeasement is stressful, even depressing.
But when used strategically, this tactic can help you get what you want. In includes tactics such as temporarily placating the oppressor, turning invisible to avoid scrutiny, increasing the dependence of the dictator and squeezing the boss by working your networks. In short, it involves laying low and buying time while increasing your boss’s dependence on you. You’re simply finding ways to quietly increase your power. Nothing weak about that. And forget surrendering –– you’re going after what you want in life, albeit indirectly.
4. Cut out your boss completely (sometimes)
“You’re not a team player,” is one of the worst things a bad boss can tell you – even if they have no concept of what teamwork actually is. Yet sometimes, the path of least resistance to get something accomplished is to go over your boss’s head. While you know you’re doing all parties involved a favor, your boss likely will not agree.
Anytime you bypass a conflict with your boss or pursue your goals with independence, maintain plausible deniability. (“Oh, I didn’t realize you wanted to visit the client together. She already signed the contract and is excited to do business. Next time I’ll ask if you want to go with me.”)
Used selectively, this can cut right through a potential conflict by skipping it. Don’t mistake this for fear-based conflict avoidance. This is goal-oriented. It simply means you’ve found a way to accomplish a specific goal without needing your boss.
While these these strategies lack the idealistic ring of “win-win,” you need to be savvy and adaptive to manage up to a bad boss and still advance your career. And they can be used with complete integrity as long as you don’t use them to exploit your colleague or to sabotage your organization. If you want to manage up effectively in any situation –– and you want to achieve your professional goals –– you need these in your toolbox.
Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson are the authors of Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement. This blog post is adapted from the book.