How to Manage Your Own Boss

managing your boss

Congratulations!  You have a New Employee!

…And it Just Happens to Be Your Boss.


The idea of it sounds ludicrous.  You have a large staff, countless projects and relentless customers to take care of throughout your day.  And then you realize you have to add one more load on top of it: managing your own boss.  Sad but true, if you feel you have to manage your boss in addition to all of your employees, rest assured, you are not alone.  It may seem like you need to help your boss with everything they do; sometimes it can just seem like you have a boss who delegates everything.  Either way, it is such a common thing that there is a Harvard Business Review article by John Gabarro and John Kotter out there that goes in depth on the topic.  Not only that, but a term was created for it.  It’s called managing up.


Why Do I Have to Manage My Own Boss?

Aren’t they supposed to manage me?  Well yes, of course.  And it is no doubt frustrating.  But looking past the passion and colorful language that comes to mind when we have to spend our precious time managing up, there are some basic reasons for it.

1.  Plain Incompetence – Let’s get it out of the way; when stuck managing our own boss, we often attribute it to his or her inability to do their job.  We might often tell ourselves “Clearly, I should be the one with the big office.”  And true, sometime our boss my be above their head.  But we, too, can find ourselves in that position at some point.  So let’s look at some other reasons.

2.  Your Boss is Probably Overworked – No surprise here.  Most managers, including us, are really busy in today’s work environment.  Your boss may simply value your efforts so much that he or she just depends on you for everything.  As annoying as it is, sometimes that’s why you find yourself managing your own boss more than he or she manages you.  Take it as a compliment.

3.  Your Manager is Distracted – Maybe your boss’s boss is being a pain, or maybe there is something personal going on at home.  Many times, the reason we have to overcompensate for our own manager is because something is taking their attention away from their duties, forcing us to fill in the gaps.

4.  Speak So No One Else Can – More than likely you’ve had a boss in your career who just had to keep talking to make them sound like they knew what they were talking about.  Continuous ramble that fooled no one, and yet no one could get a word in to quiet them down.  It is not uncommon for people in positions of authority to feel the need to speak up, or feel pressure to be heard in a group as the highest ranking person.  But the there is you, interjecting with soft spoke corrections every two sentences.

5.  We All Have Our Flaws – Your manager may be awesome at finance and managing a balance sheet, but maybe he or she is just not that good at managing people.  As Gabarro and Kotter say, “Bosses, like everyone else, are imperfect and fallible. They don’t have unlimited time, encyclopedic knowledge, or extrasensory perception; nor are they evil enemies.”  So, it’s ok to give you boss some advice on how to manage people or to share tips with them from time to time.  Keeping an open dialogue with your supervisor is always a good way to build trust.

And What Does Managing Your Boss Mean?

It means you find yourself correcting their errors, feeding them every piece of information to make sure they clearly understand, and helping them through any number of challenges along the way.

And why should we care?  Well, let us not forget that we’re talking about our boss, and the fact that we are his or her subordinate.  This is the person who assesses our efforts and gives us our performance review.  They give us our pay raise and we rely on them for a timely approval of our expense reports and our documents.  They have the ability to fire us.  And just maybe, we depend on our boss to give us an exciting opportunity from time to time.

RELATED: What Are Your Employees Telling You?

So despite the frustration of having to manage your own boss, there are a number of ways you can help influence and manage your own manager that won’t compromise your employment status.  Let’s take a look at these five options:

1.  Always Make the Boss Look Good

Regardless of why you have to manage up, it’s still your boss we are talking about here.  And even if it goes against every bone in your body, do it anyway.  Does making your boss look good mean you should spend all weekend working on a report and putting your boss’s name on it so she can take credit for it?  No, of course not.  But it does mean that you should work all weekend and put your own name on it to make sure it’s done by Monday.   She will be grateful.  Always make your boss look good, but be transparent about the fact that it was you who did the work.  But put your name on the report.  You write the email to your boss and his boss with the urgent data.  And you take the initiative to make something happen when you know your boss will not.   Even if your manager doesn’t notice it, others will.  In any business environment, people know who the movers and shakers are.  Before long, people will see that all the success is due to your efforts, and not your manager’s.

2.  Make Your Case When Appropriate

A smart way to manage up is to seize the opportunities when your boss asks how things are going, or asks for any feedback.  It may seem rare when you find yourself picking up the pieces every day, but the opportunities do exist.  When you do get the chance (at dinner on a business trip, during your performance review, while you’re walking out the door on a Friday), don’t unload.  While your list of complaints about her approach, or methods may be a mile long, you won’t accomplish anything by going down that path.  Instead, highlight the one or two key things you need from them.  “Things are going ok, but if you could really pay closer attention to the calendar and keep meetings from spilling over it would help me keep to my schedule.”  Be specific but professional when giving feedback to your boss so it is something they can take away with them.  “If you could please make sure to not set up meetings too early in the morning, it would help.  I have to take my kids to school and getting to the office before 8AM is really hard.”

RELATED: What to Say in a Performance Review

3.  Give Your Boss an Assignment

When you find yourself in a situation when you need to manage your manager, more often than not, you may find your manager needs A LOT of help.  They will rely on you for details, information and guidance, and for frequent communication throughout the day.  Managers who need this much hand-holding – for whatever reason – tend to overdo it and hurt more than they help.  If they’re struggling to grasp the details, or having a hard time staying focused, your manager will need more help.  So when you feel your boss is micromanaging you and feel they need to be in sync with you every step of the way, find something else for him or her to do.  For example, if your manager continues to bombard you with phone calls and meetings, pull out the old “let me go do X, and you go do Y.  We can catch up later and discuss.”  Not only are you buying time back for yourself, but you’re giving your supervisor something to do alone to make them feel like they’re contributing.

4.   Use Your Network

I was in the middle of major production issue at our factory.  And for weeks, my boss has been in our office, trying to help lead the charge.  Unfortunately, organization and communication were not his thing.  Consequently, his valiant efforts resulted in chaos.  Then, when he was back at his home office one week for some other issues, the Vice President came to town.  He asked me how I thought things were going and I gave him the truth.  “My boss is hurting more than he’s helping.”  Not surprisingly, within a few days, my boss was politely given another thing to worry about, allowing me and my team to go about resolving the crisis.  When you find yourself having to do damage control and keep an eye on your own boss, don’t be afraid to reach out to your network and seek the help of others who can influence your supervisor without putting you in harms way.  Of course, do so professionally.

RELATED: 25 Tips for Managing a Crisis

5.   Remind Yourself That Nothing Lasts Forever

You were offered a promotion and you took it to help further your career.  But three months in, it was more than evident that working for this particular boss was harder than the job itself.  But this is not your grandfather’s job.  In today’s career climate, fewer and fewer people stay in the same position, role, or even company for 40 years.  So bear this in mind as you find yourself shaking your head in disbelieve at your own boss:  Soon enough, one of you will move on.  Until then, do your best to guide your boss and feed them with the right information at the right time to make sure they don’t say something silly in front of a customer.


Need More?  Learn to manage like you’re Bobby Fischer.

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