“Is it really possible to manage my boss?” You may now be asking yourself this question. The answer is: Yes! I know from experience that the most important thing is to gain the complete trust of your superior by showing him* that he has your full backing. The second step is to find out what is important to your manager and what makes him tick. You can then start to exert a positive influence over him. Managing from the bottom up requires patience, intuition, good observation skills and a tactical approach.
I once had a very well-known boss – the CEO of a major bank. He was highly respected by employees but his very confident demeanor and authoritative approach meant that few people dared to tell him the unvarnished truth … but I did. And he was the best boss I ever had, even if he came across as “somewhat bad tempered”, as my mother liked to say. He was clearly in charge of me – but I also managed him, and he allowed himself to be guided by me. I think we both benefited from this; it was an absolute win-win situation. And I am certain that he would confirm what I am saying.
Bosses are only human
Why is it that both sides can benefit from these efforts to manage from the bottom up? To avoid any confusion: I am not talking about ‘bossing’ your line manager around. The objective is to have a positive effect on your superior as you work together to achieve the same thing by trying to bring about certain decisions and positively influence behavior based on the idea that this is in everyone’s interests. Managers are not perfect. From experience, I would say that strong and confident bosses are aware of this and don’t simply want to ‘rule’ others based on their position; instead, they want to use the expertise and personal skills of their employees and they therefore take them seriously – which benefits both them and the company.
So what steps should you take to manage your boss upwards? You should begin by noting a few rules about how you should not treat your superior:
- Never show up your boss in front of others or adopt a highly confrontational approach when others are present. Otherwise, he will show you who is really the boss…
- Don’t interrupt him (or others).
- Don’t tell your boss “That can’t be done!” even if you are completely convinced it is the case. Instead, you should present alternative options at your next meeting and try to convince your boss of their merits. This means that you shouldn’t simply reject your boss’ suggestion – but say “I will take care of it and then let you know”. Another approach is to ask your boss questions such as “What do you consider to be the benefits of this solution?” or “Do you think there are any other options?” I have found that asking questions is one of the most effective tools when it comes to managing people (either from the top down or the bottom up). In doing so, you show people that you take them seriously and, at the same time, can work towards finding other solutions.
- Don’t say negative things about your boss behind his back or moan – managers don’t like that. If there are issues such as difficulties with a project, you can and must address them – but always try to come up with proposals on how to solve problems. Otherwise, your boss may think you don’t have the situation under control.
- Never adopt a more casual tone than your superior when writing or speaking to him; that would be disrespectful.
- Don’t compare your current line manager to his predecessor in a negative way. This could make him think that you don’t trust him and possibly create the impression that you can’t deal constructively with change.
- Don’t take it (too) personally if you come under fire from your boss. He is under a lot of pressure and may not always be in control of his emotions – and does not mean what he perhaps said in the heat of the moment. I was able to put this principle into practice with my former boss – especially if negative press articles appeared from time to time… Try to see things from a different perspective in these situations: Is your boss possibly under even more pressure than you are? Are there different factors at play that you may not even be aware of?
Gain his complete trust
So what can help you to influence your boss positively to achieve the best outcome for both sides?
- I know from experience that gaining the complete trust of your superior is key to managing from the bottom up. Demonstrate that you are 100% loyal to your boss and let him see that he has your full backing. People in leadership roles are often very lonely. In an everyday context, this means that they have few people whom they can trust implicitly. It also means that they rarely obtain positive feedback and never receive praise. If a manager recognizes that you support him vis-à-vis external and internal stakeholders, he will begin to open up.
- Be reliable. Meet deadlines, be punctual and don’t forget any of your duties. This will also help to give your boss the impression that you can be trusted.
- Show your appreciation and praise him. After all, managers are only human and need recognition and validation. You can reinforce positive leadership behavior by offering positive feedback – and he may replicate this approach some time…
- Once you have his complete trust, you can also give critical feedback – naturally only in a one-on-one discussion. It is okay to criticize your boss – the question is when and how you do it.
- If I say that you should show your boss appreciation, I don’t mean that you should tell him what he wants to hear and ‘crawl’ to him. Be genuine – or your views won’t be taken seriously. Bosses want their employees to generate value for them – and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. That is what he is paying you for. And if you keep agreeing with your boss’s input, that won’t help him.
- Observe your boss and get to know him well: Is he a morning or an evening person? When is he most likely to be receptive to new ideas? Which ideas is he most likely to respond to? Which factors are important to him in this context? What is he sensitive to? You should then act according to your analysis.
- Managing a ‘difficult’ boss is a skill that needs to be learnt. If you have a boss who tends to change his mind, recap on all the important points at the end of a discussion and ask whether you have understood everything correctly – or ask your boss for written instructions. If you have a micromanager as a boss, always be one step ahead of him and give him regular updates. He will then have the sense of security he needs. If your manager is not good at setting priorities or deciding which measures to take, ask him for a decision and point out the consequences of this approach.
If you have a poor boss, don’t play the victim. Instead, try to view his approach as a gift. You could learn a lot from him – e.g. how not to manage people, how you can stand up for yourself without risking an open conflict, or which strategies should be used to achieve your goal.
Managing from the bottom up calls for a lot of intuition, good observation skills and a tactical approach. If you manage your boss successfully, this can benefit both sides – since it is in the interests of you, your manager and the company.
* I would again like to point out in this context that only the masculine form has been used in this article to make it more readable – although all of this content naturally also applies to female managers!
© Claudia Kraaz