Managing Up When Your Boss Refuses to Lead


Managing Up – Overcoming the Fear of Leading the Dullards Above You

Explaining to your boss or your boss’ boss that he/she is an idiot is never a good idea, though everyday in American business we are faced with substandard leadership and a mission at hand. How can we help move the business forward when we work for the dumbest person alive? How can we, as lower or middle level managers, effectively and efficiently help our company succeed in today’s tough economic times?

Overcoming the fear of managing up is a primary way middle managers or rank and file employees can effectively drive results through the entire organization. Of course, it’s important that these middle managers stop being a victim of their supervisor’s inadequacies. If you’re too busy crying “woe is me,” then you have your own issues to overcome before you should feel comfortable tackling those of your boss.

Your Boss Has Some Strengths, Doesn’t She?

After you grow up and quit blaming your boss for the failings of your business, understanding your supervisor’s strengths and weaknesses is the first key to unlocking the door to a more productive workplace. Clearly, you have a good handle on their weaknesses or you would have never stumbled upon this management training article. Employing a little insight and putting your personal feelings aside you’ll certainly discover that this idiot has a few strengths, as well.

Playing to their weaknesses (or trying to exploit these) will not get you from point A to point B in an expeditious manner. Rather, you need to understand their strengths – and especially what they believe they’re good at – and use these to your company’s advantage.

Perhaps your boss fancies himself a tremendously cost-conscious leader, adept at recognizing and cutting fat before it ever hits the bottom line. Perfect – you have an “in” for all the good you wish to accomplish. Manipulating (I know this word sounds bad, but it’s necessary) your speech to this person in a way that angles everything toward the bottom line will allow you to make an impact you’ve missed in the past.

Priorities are King

Your supervisor’s priorities are probably tied very closely to their strengths. That is, if they’re good at something, that “something” generally becomes the highest priority for the company. Unfortunately, when a manager is good at something, especially a senior manager, they tend to use and overuse this at every turn. You’ve heard it said that “he’s good with a hammer, so he thinks everything is a nail.”

Work to document the priorities of your boss and especially what key issues exist (in their mind). Next, determine ways to address these issues within your sphere of influence. (Your sphere of influence encompasses those precious few priorities or duties you actually control.) Working to help your boss reach some of their goals (and allowing them to be the hero) will bring you into their inner circle faster than a sycophantically-adept sprinter.

Without being obvious, it’s important to ensure your supervisors see and appreciate your involvement in helping them solve their issues. When you assist your superiors, they are more likely to reciprocate in similar ways when you need help.

Take Charge

Taking charge when your boss does not is also an ideal way to positively influence a company’s direction. Generally speaking, when a team is in need of leadership, it’s due to a lack of involvement by the top guy/gal on the team. Taking charge and delivering quality direction to the rest of the team – and even to your boss – provides the much needed vision every human worker seeks.

By taking charge in a constructive way you will become a bit of a role model to others on the team. Ensuring your style is fair and void of ego will help the team members to rally around you, and should draw praise from those above.

But, My Boss is an Egomaniacal Weeble!

We’ve all worked for the do-nothing supervisor who smacks down every attempt at independence from any of his subordinates. In these instances, you must strive to balance pleasing your boss and the driving results of the team.

Nothing will appeal more to your supervisors than anticipating their needs. Instead of providing this no-load manager with a dose of passive-aggressive production (as others do), try delivering something above and beyond.

Of course, if your boss is truly an egomaniac, it will take more than a few “great jobs” for them to include you in their master plan. Here are few steps to help you achieve the unachievable with an egomaniac do-nothing:

  • Perform well on every task – never assume that something you completed for your boss is “good enough:”
  • Be visible – this smacks against the conventional wisdom that you should keep your head down for fear of having it shot off;
  • Go above and beyond – if your boss asks for last week’s numbers, deliver them with a chart showing the trends for the past several weeks; and
  • Drop the attitude – nothing kills a management career more than a passive-aggressive approach to doing one’s job.

Are you saying I Should Kiss His Ass?

No … and, well, sort of – after all, he is the boss.

On a serious note, all managers want people who work with them, not against them. Even great leaders prefer to work with those who create the minimum amount of drama at work. We all have enough drama in our family life that we would prefer to live without it in our work life. That said, great leaders do want to be challenged.

If you were working for a great leader, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

By providing more than your boss asks for and acting consistently, you will quickly gain a reputation for being a reliable person of integrity who can execute. In business, there is nothing more important than execution.

Once your boss identifies that you are the “go to” person in the organization, your ideas and vision will begin to permeate the organization.

It’s All About “The Boss”

Throughout your quest to manage up, never forget that in your supervisor’s mind, it might be all about him/her. Great leaders check their ego at the door, but your boss is far from becoming a great leader. Accepting this part of your position – that is, to make your boss look good – will help both your management career and your company.

By providing cover for your supervisor and taking blame when it’s not yours to take will allow you to grow in importance and influence. Over-communicating and frequently over-communicating will show most managers that you care about them and their priorities. Understand how your boss likes to communicate (via phone, email, in-person) and deliver what they want via the medium they prefer.

I Don’t Want to be a Pest

Careful, you’re slipping into the victim role here…

If you deliver value and you make sure your boss looks good while you deliver this value, you will never become a pest. However, it is important that your boss never look at you as weak or as a sycophant. A few quick tips to keep you from appearing weak or ineffective to the do-nothing boss:

  • Don’t waste their time – be prepared and understand their issues and the possible resolutions before you meet with your boss;
  • Have an opinion on everything important – recommendations, especially solid recommendations, are appreciated by the do-nothings; and
  • Provide adequate data – nothing moves a do-nothing off the fence more than data-based decision making.

Some Final Thoughts…

Although we may have already touched on some of these, it is vital that you think strategically, over-communicate with the underperforming manager and remain humble in the presence of your boss (especially when he/she is meeting with their boss).

As someone who thinks about the long-term, you will often be looked upon to deliver forecasts and opinions about the state of your industry. All managers want to succeed in the short-term, but great companies maximize their future. Strategic thinkers will always win above those who live only in the here and now.

Don’t be afraid of delivering too much information to the do-nothing manager in your life. In fact, there is no way to truly manage up unless you ensure they have all the data necessary to make an informed decision. Over-communication is the most underutilized techniques in middle management today. Don’t be shy and don’t be intimidated by the large corner office with a view. Businesses need information to succeed and your company needs someone like you to deliver that information.

Humility is often the most underused leadership trait today. Think about it in your life. Likely everyone you really like is humble; while you tend to tolerate those effective folks with overactive egos and you absolutely despise the blowhards who deliver nothing. Humility breeds respect, and respect is the key to managing up and managing across.