I have read numerous articles and posts on how to manage your manager. They typically contain a list of 7, 8, 12, or 13 tips or tricks. It doesn’t work that way.  What works is to get to know your manager, become a valuable member of their team and leverage that to set the boundaries that ensure a good work-life balance.

What you will learn…

  1. Why it is important to manage your manager
  2. How to get to know your manager
  3. The different aspects of managing them

Why You Need to Manage Your Manager

Your role as a manager is a difficult one. You need to lead and develop your team, deal with personnel issues – including hiring and firing, ensure that plans are in place and that the team is delivering to those plans, deal with budgets, and so on. And of course, you need to focus on your own career.

You also need to be responsive to your manager. They will want to be informed as to how things are going, if you are on track with your projects, and if you are running into any issues that might impact your ability to deliver. And they will need to have you take on additional tasks that may come up.

All of this can create a very stressful environment. One where the expectations can quickly exceed your ability to meet them. You can, and very likely will work harder to try to keep up and meet their expectations.

There is a better way. That is – you need to manage your manager.

Get to Know Your Manager

The first step, well before you try to implement aspects of managing your manager is to get to know them. To build a relationship that will allow you to develop trust.

The way you do this is threefold. You will need to spend time with them, observe the way they operate, and talk to others that know your manager.

You are trying to understand a number of things.

  • Their management style
  • Their strengths and weaknesses
  • How they communicate
  • Their preferred interaction approach (email, phone, text, and then a call)
  • The relationships that they have, both formal and informal
  • Their typical work hours
  • What motivates them
  • What they are being held accountable for (including their goals)

This is a long list. It will take focus and time. Spend the time. Make sure you really know your manager. The more you understand the easier it will be to manage them.

Focus on What Really Matters

The first step in managing your manager is to focus on what really matters to them.

Now that you fully understand your manager, you need to tune your interactions to align. The mistake that I often see is a manager who feels like they need to share everything that they are doing. They believe they will benefit from this, but in my experience, just the opposite happens. Their manager tunes them out, doesn’t give them the time, or worse starts to write them off as not core to their success.

Don’t make this mistake. You will have to provide some level of updates on the things that you are doing, but you need to spend the bulk of your time on what matters to your manager. Here are a few examples.

  • If your manager is motivated by innovation and not by operations, then you need to take care of the operations yourself and spend time with them on the things that you are doing that are innovative. You will have to ensure that they are confident that you have the right operational systems and processes in place, but beyond that, don’t spend your precious time on this. Spend it sharing the cool things that you are doing – making sure that you tie it back to how it will help them to be successful.
  • If your manager is very goal-oriented, make sure that you are aligned with helping them to achieve their goals. Go as far as to build your goals to directly align where possible. Spend your time with your manager sharing how you are doing in helping them to meet or better exceed their goals.
  • If your manager is very people-oriented, this is where you should spend a good portion of your time with them. As above, it is not that you avoid sharing the other things that you are doing, but keep the focus on what really matters to them.

As you learn how to do this you are beginning to manage your manager. Doing it well opens the door to take this even further.

Be Positive

In addition to demonstrating that you are aligned with your manager on what matters most, you need to present a positive attitude. You need to be the one that helps solve problems, not the one that creates them. You need to take ownership and responsibility, not be the person who makes excuses and looks to lay blame.

Why? This is exactly what you want from the members of your team. When you have this, you value them, you give them great opportunities, you bring them in on strategy and planning, you depend on them and you reward them.

This does not mean that you should avoid raising issues and problems with your manager. What it means instead is – when you bring them up, state the fact, do not complain or make excuses and move on to describe how to solve them.

Being positive, acknowledging issues, and helping to solve them will be recognized by your manager. This will improve your relationship and open the door to new opportunities.

Take on Responsibility

There are two aspects to taking on responsibility. First, this is what your manager wants and needs. In the same way that your manager wants someone that is positive and helps solve problems rather than complaining or making excuses – they want you to take on responsibility. That will help them to be more productive.

Second, taking on responsibility is critical to better managing your manager. If you interact at a task level, they will manage you at the task level. As you complete each task they will give you the next one. This limits your ability to set boundaries and take control. You need to move to operate at a level above the individual tasks.

Here are the three keys to taking on a larger responsibility.

  1. The first is to prove that you are ready. You do this by executing effectively on the tasks that you are given. Discuss the approach that you are taking and the time required to complete the task. Meet and ideally find a way to exceed their expectations. Do this not by delivering early, although that is fine as well, but rather by overachieving in some way. Give them more than they asked for and explain how this is important in a way that is relevant to them (see above).
  2. The second is to come back with additional ideas related to the area that you want to take on responsibility. Help your manager to see that you are thinking more broadly than at the task level. Note that this may result in you taking on extra tasks – that may be the cost of proving that you are ready for bigger things.
  3. The third is to let your manager know that you would like to take on the larger responsibility. Remind them of what you have been able to accomplish thus far and how you understand the full scope of what is required. If they are unsure, ask that you try the ownership. Give them a timeframe and commit to re-evaluating then.

If you take this approach, you will be amazed at how your manager responds. The first time will be a learning experience for both of you. The second and subsequent times will be easier.

Once you have taken ownership, you are in the position to manage your manager. You can work with them on your goals and commitments, and then find a way to overachieve, exceeding their expectations – all while maintaining the ability to control your workload and manage the execution of your team.

Fill Weaknesses

One of the most effective ways to strengthen your relationship with your manager is to fill the weaknesses that they have. They will love you for this (ok, most of the time as some managers don’t realize where their weaknesses are…).

The best case is when these weaknesses are your strengths. Both of you will see the value. On the other hand, if their weaknesses are the same as yours, I would not recommend that you not try to fill them. As you can imagine, this is not going to work out well for either of you. It is more likely that you can fill one of their weaknesses even if it is not your strength.

By doing this, you are again strengthening the relationship that you have, setting yourself up for great opportunities in the future.

Example: Filling a Manager’s Weakness

I have had many different types of managers in my career. I have had the friend that became my manager, one that was highly technical, and another that was the best people person I have ever met. Each of these had these amazing strengths but also some glaring weaknesses. And in all cases, I have looked for ways that I could help them by taking on things that I could do where they are either weak or where they do not focus their time.

A good example is one of my managers who was not great at team building. He was great in front of customers and great in front of the team when it came to projects or other work-related activities. But he did not enjoy the social side of team events. This is not my strength either, but it is something that I am comfortable doing. So I took on responsibility for planning a regular quarterly event for his whole organization. Sometimes these were as simple as food and drinks. Other times we went somewhere together. I made sure my manager was there at least for a part of the event so that he could stand up in front of everyone and thank them for all of the great work they are doing.

This didn’t take much time, but it really helped my manager. It strengthened our relationship and I am confident that I ended up with more of his support as a result.

A few words of warning. Don’t take on more than you can handle. You still need the capacity to take on other projects and do a good job. Taking on something and then failing to execute will hurt you more than not taking it on in the first place.

Keep Your Manager Informed, No Surprises

With all of this discussion on building relationships, being positive, taking on responsibility, and filling in for weaknesses – you have to remember one of the cardinal rules. That is, keep your manager informed. Make sure that there are no surprises.

As you work your way through each of the areas described, you will be building confidence and trust. I view it as a counter. The more confidence and trust that you build, the less a mistake will hurt you. At some point, we all will make a mistake. That is when the trust that you have built will come in handy.

So focus on keeping your manager informed. Include the good and bad. Be especially clear as to the risks that you see and the way you are remediating them. In the event that you are not able to address a risk, your manager will already know. This is not ideal but is far better than their being surprised.

Make Your Manager Look Good

I covered some of this above in getting to know your manager and taking on responsibility.

To expand on it further. The best way to help yourself is to make your manager look good. Help them to achieve or exceed their goals. Make them a star in their manager’s eyes.

When you do this, the recognition will come. Your manager will know what you did for them and they will be thankful. You will become the person that they can depend on, that they can give the most important projects or responsibilities to.

Advise and Commit

Much of what I have described assumes you and your manager are on the same page. That you agree on what needs to be done. That you are going to help them to be successful and as a result, you will reap the benefits.

This does not always happen. There are times when you do not agree with your manager. This does not change anything that I have described above, but it does require you to make a personal decision as to whether you are in – or not.

The way to approach this is to make sure you are able to engage and provide your feedback early before decisions are made, responsibilities are handed out, and changes are implemented. Think through how to provide a balanced view while effectively communicating and justifying your opinion. Present this to your manager. Guage their response. If they are open but not convinced, determine what additional information is needed to make them comfortable, collect that and provide an update.

At this point, the decision is in their hands. If they go your direction, great. If not, you will need to disagree and commit. Do not disagree and subvert. Do not continue to look for opportunities to bring your point up again. Do not make it hard for the team to be successful based on your manager’s decision. Accept the decision and support it.

Example: Advise then Disagree and Commit

We had responsibility for the installation and configuration software for a product. We were planning the features for the next release. Doing a significant update was on the list of features to be considered given the feedback we had received from customers. I spent a good deal of time describing the importance of doing this work. My feature did not make the cut. My manager decided that other features were more important. I feel like I was heard and went along with the decision – even though after the release shipped we continued to get negative feedback from our customers. 

If you fundamentally disagree with the decision, and/or you continue to see decisions that you are struggling to get behind. It might be time to move to another team, organization or company. This is a big decision so do not take it lightly. But you need to be in a place where you believe in the leadership of the company and especially in your manager.

Create Boundaries

Much of what has been presented is about how to understand your manager, how to work with them, how to help them, and ultimately how to leverage what you have learned to manage them.

The last important aspect of managing your manager is to take control of your time. To allow you to work hard when you are working but at the same time have the work-life balance to truly have your own personal time away from work. The way you do this is to create boundaries.

There are two tightly coupled aspects to boundaries.

The first thing that you need to work with your manager on is when you are available. Are you willing to be available outside of work hours? If so, for what? Often times a manager will want to interact with you in the same way that they like to work. If they pride themselves on being 7×24, then they will expect you to do the same.

You need to address this early and consistently. You need to let them know from the beginning, with your actions, when you are working and when you are not. You need to communicate this to them also in person. I think that it is best to share your understanding of the way they operate and then share yours. Let them know that of course if there is an emergency, then you are available, but outside of that, you do not answer the phone or respond to email.

This can be a challenging discussion as it can push you a bit away from your manager. It can also move you outside of the decision-making for the team or organization. Watch for this and determine how you can, within the hours that you work, build the relationship and engage in important discussions.

Example: Late-Night Email

I worked for a manager who liked to have strategic discussions late at night in email. The thread almost looked like chat with a number of people going back and forth on the topic. I don’t read my email at night. I get up early, spend time NOT on email initially but rather on more creative items and then jump into email. The problem that I was facing (or feeling) was that I was missing out on being a part of the discussion.

The second is how you are willing to engage. Are you a phone person? Or do you prefer to chat or text? Are you a Slack user? Or is email your preferred method of communicating? Each manager is different in the way they like to engage. You need to find a balance between their style and yours. Whatever you decide, you need to discuss this with your manager.

Example: Chat and Slack

I am very structured in the way I manage my time. I am not a fan of interruptions and the resulting switching time/cost that comes with them. I also am not a member of a development team where we are regularly asking questions, sharing documents and so on. As a result, I am primarily an email user, but use the phone when a discussion is needed, and chat when we emails are turning into a discussion.

My manager is a phone guy. He does read emails, but at times given his travel schedule, it can be delayed. So if I need something, I text him asking for a time and we talk on the phone. When he needs me, he calls and I drop what I am doing. I do this because it is incredibly infrequent and we have developed a communication cadence where he only calls when it really matters. 

Pulling It All Together

Managing your manager is not about telling them what to do or how to do it. It is about understanding your manager and learning the best way to work for and with them. It is about being a great employee and leveraging that to create boundaries that you are comfortable with. By focusing on this, you can have the work-life balance that you desire.

See Also

Managing Work-Related Stress

Make An Impact – How Goals Can Help


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