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Managing the boss is key

Published on Friday, 19 Nov 2010
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss
Author: Bruce Tulgan
Publisher: Jossey-Bass

The thought of managing your boss is a challenging one for many people, from those who think flattering and fawning over their managers will open doors to promotion, to the self-proclaimed high performers who don't think they need to be told what to do, and employees who believe they are on an equal footing to their bosses.

In It's Okay to Manage Your Boss, Bruce Tulgan, business adviser and author of It's Okay to be the Boss and Managing Generation X, argues that it is crucial for us to actively manage every boss we work with, on any task and for any period of time.

"The boss - at every level - is the most important person in the workplace," Tulgan writes. "You rely on your immediate boss ... for meeting your basic needs and expectations at work, and for dealing with just about any issue that arises at work."

Unfortunately, few bosses are able to articulate what they want, or provide clear, constructive feedback about your performance. As a result, small problems may escalate, and unnecessary hiccups and obstacles may arise, preventing you from performing at your best.

In order to become successful in the workplace, the onus is on you to help your boss manage you. The author says the key to achieving this is to get into the habit of having regular one-on-one "management conversations" with the bosses you answer to.

"Communicate about the work you are doing for him or her," the author writes. "Maintain an ongoing dialogue with every boss about the four management basics: what is expected of you, the resources you need to meet those expectations, honest feedback on your performance and guidance on how to adjust it as necessary, [and] what credit and reward you will earn for your hard work."

To help readers take the first step, Tulgan suggests practical ways to deal with a manager who is too busy for a chat or a supervisor who has too much time on his hands, and when, how often, and for how long the two of you should meet.

The author proffers tips and tactics on how to tackle problems that are likely to arise as you manage your boss. In customising one's approach to different bosses, for instance, Tulgan suggests an employee answer a set of questions, including "who is this boss at work?", "what do I need to talk about with this boss?", and "how and where should I talk?".

To get the best out of a regular one-on-one meeting, make sure you are clear about the purpose of the conversation and choose the right time and place for it.

In the course of a meeting, what should you do if your boss fails to provide the details of your assignment? "[Help] your bosses figure out the goals, guidelines and timelines," Tulgan writes, adding that the common questions managers ask, such as "how is everything going" and "is everything on track" are not specific enough.

Rather, a manager should find out what the staff's plan for achieving a task is, what the initial steps and the benchmarks for success are, whether the amount of resources at hand is sufficient, and what the back-up plan will be. If your boss isn't asking these questions of you, ask him or her to help you think through them.

It's Okay to Manage Your Boss is for anyone who wants to be successful in the workplace, and who understands they need bosses who are strong and highly engaged. Senior executives who want to be better bosses should ask their staff to read the book, too.


Five insights

  • Some bosses can be difficult. They may be abusive, pretend things are up to you when they aren’t, or blame you for all the mistakes
  • Remain professional when dealing with them
  • Take notes of how your boss is being difficult. Jot down the dates and times, the boss’s words or actions, and your role in each
  • Have a tough conversation with your boss by presenting the facts to him or her
  • Last resort: consider talking to HR.


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