How to manage your manager

Author Dana Brownlee can help you learn how to manage up.

How to manage your manager

Author Dana Brownlee can help you learn how to manage up.

“People assume I must have had some truly terrible bosses in my past,” muses Dana Brownlee, who worked at IBM Consulting, AT&T, and elsewhere before starting her Atlanta-based training company Professionalism Matters. But not so—although, she adds, everyone reports to a difficult manager at some point, and it isn’t just bosses who require careful handling: Clients and co-workers are often just as tricky to manage as your actual manager.

Brownlee’s new book, The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up, is subtitled Project Management Techniques from the Trenches. And according to her, managing your career, and the people around and above you, should be approached like any other project. “Everyone is a project manager,” she writes, defining a project as “a reasonably complicated effort focused on producing a specific result.”

People and relationships are complicated, for sure, so Brownlee suggests several tactics for getting along with each of half a dozen different kinds of maddening personalities.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution,” says the author. “You have to adjust your approach depending on the feedback you get.” Plenty of managers, for instance, appreciate suggestions on how to do things differently. If yours isn’t one of those, she says, “back off and try a different technique.”

It’s worth the trouble, since helping your boss be more effective can be a great way to advance your own career. The Unwritten Rules is based in part on a survey Brownlee conducted, which asked nearly 1,200 employees and bosses about their experiences at work. After expecting the results to be “mostly people venting about their awful bosses,” one finding that surprised her was that “quite a few of the respondents were bosses themselves, and they really wanted the people under them to do more managing up. The employees they value most are the most proactive.”

Monster recently spoke with Brownlee about different personality types you may encounter at work and some specific ways to manage them to avoid letting them get under your skin.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake people make when they try to manage up?

A. It’s crucial to understand what managing up is and isn’t! One classic mistake is offering advice or suggestions in a way that makes it seem like you’re trying to take over. A better approach is to ask questions. For example, instead of arguing with a decision your boss has made, ask whether he or she is aware of whatever reason you see why it won’t work. By giving your boss extra information, you’re leaving the decision in her hands, but raising the odds that it will succeed.

Another mistake is worrying more about being liked than about being effective. It’s great to have friends at work, but the goal with your boss is to move past personality differences and advance the task or the project—not to make him or her like you more.

Q. About two-thirds of the people in your survey said the manager that has been most difficult for them is what you call the Clueless Chameleon. Can you explain what that type of boss is like and how to manage them?

A. This person’s attitude is, “I’m not clear on what I’m looking for, but I’ll be sure to blame you when I don’t get it.” As a boss—or a client—he changes his mind a lot and tends to think out loud, so you can easily be sent off in the wrong direction. One way to handle this is to document everything. Email him or her every time an assignment is made and every time it changes so you have a paper trail of what was agreed on at each stage.

Another tactic that works is to help him or her think it through. Do a rough draft of the project and bring it back to be refined and tinkered with, until the boss arrives at a definite description of the goal and how to get there.

Q. Well over half of your survey respondents had struggled with a type you call the Tornado. What’s the best approach there?

A. People with tornado personalities are very dominating, very definite in their opinions, and usually don’t give anyone else a chance to speak. Instead, they just take over the discussion, which can be disastrous for a team. This kind of behavior is hardwired in people—they’re probably the same way at, say, Thanksgiving dinner—so there’s no point in trying to change it.

However, you can get around it. Since they are often in senior management, one way is to meet with them one-on-one before the whole team meets and explain that their rank intimidates some of the other people in the group, who then don’t speak up. Senior executives often don’t realize how their presence makes people clam up, so you want to frame their skipping the meeting as a way to get more ideas from the team.

Q. Most of us have worked for at least one micromanager. Are there ways to get them to stop hovering?

A. Definitely. You need to consider why they’re doing it. Often they are anxious people who worry a lot about what could go wrong, regardless of what you are actually doing. In that case you need to over-communicate right from the start. Involve them and keep them informed. A good idea is to propose a check-in schedule, where you offer to meet, say, every Wednesday and Friday at a set time to give your micromanager a status report. If a micromanager knows he or she will get updates on a regular schedule, he or she will hang over your shoulder a lot less in the meantime.

Q. Let’s say you acquire the knack of helping your boss be more effective, which managers in your survey said they value in employees. How do you get that across in a job interview?

A. I know from having consulted with them that a huge frustration for many bosses is a team member whose attention is so focused on schmoozing the right people to get to his or her next position that the person is barely doing their current job. So I always tell people, “Be a star where you are.” If you’re low-maintenance, likeable, and work circles around everyone else, that will come across to job interviewers—whether they’re inside or outside your company.

Manage your skills

Navigating co-worker personalities and management styles can feel like it's interfering with your job. Need help figuring out how to master that? We can help. Join Monster today. As a member, you'll get weekly career advice emails filled with expert suggestions on how to develop necessary management skills, advance your career, and kick-start a job search. Also, as a member you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads. 

Anne Fisher has been writing about career and workplace trends and topics since 1996. She is a columnist for Fortune.com and the author of If My Career’s on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map?