By Tracy Tsai, PCC, CPC
Your relationship with your manager can have a significant impact on how satisfied and productive you are at work, and how much you’re able to advance. As the saying goes, people don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. Managers are often managing multiple people and overseeing various initiatives, so your relationship may not be one of your manager’s top priorities. However, it should be one of yours. By taking responsibility for your relationship with your manager, you’re helping your own career to advance.
What are some key ways to do this?
1. See the World from Your Manager’s Perspective
The idea of managing your manager can be intimidating when your manager is very senior, or when your boss is difficult and your relationship is tenuous. In almost all cases, developing a sense of empathy can help.
Remember that managers are human, just like you. They have their own fears, concerns and aspirations. Get curious about what these might be, and try to view the world from their vantage point. You might see that they have a lot going on, including a life outside of work, and that they have good intentions as a manager. It’s easy to assume the worst about your manager if they don’t seem as engaged or concerned about you as you might want them to be, but a little empathy might shift your perspective. According to a global survey by Catalyst, 92% of global workers say they are experiencing burnout, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if your manager was feeling just as stretched and stressed as you are.
This doesn’t mean that you have to agree with your manager’s decisions or actions, but by empathizing with the constraints or challenges she is facing, you can build rapport, and ultimately, a stronger relationship with her. For example, something as simple as saying, “I imagine that must be very frustrating for you” can go a long way in demonstrating that you can see things from their perspective. That being said, while it’s important to empathize with your manager, you should continue to advocate for yourself–and this becomes much easier once you have created a sense of rapport and trust (see #4 below for more information on advocating for yourself).
Along the same vein, try to understand what is most important to your manager. The best way to do this is to ask questions. For instance:
- What are their priorities? What goals are they trying to meet this quarter/year?
- How is their performance measured?
- What keeps them awake at night?
- How can you help them achieve what’s important to them?
2. Understand Your Manager’s Preferences and Leadership Style
Another component of managing up is being aware of how your manager prefers to work. For example, what is your manager’s preferred method of communication? One way to figure this out is by observing how they interact with others. Do they seem to like the efficiency of a quick phone call, or do they take the time to draft thoughtful emails? Chances are, that is the communication method they would prefer others to use with them as well. Managers, like everyone else, also have times of day when they tend to be more receptive. If your manager is a morning person, for instance, they might be more open to discussing new ideas or having difficult conversations in the earlier part of the day, rather than in the late afternoon.
It also helps to understand your manager’s leadership style. There are many approaches to leadership, and a number of leadership frameworks have been developed to capture these differences. Is your manager more focused on achieving the bottom-line results, or on building relationships and influence? Do they tend to be more “laissez faire,” or do they tend to micromanage? Do they like to seek multiple opinions before making a decision, or are their decisions driven by more concrete facts and numbers?
By becoming aware of your manager’s leadership style and how it might vary in different situations, you can better understand their behaviors and get insight into their preferences. There are assessments that can help with this. For example, in Her New Standard’s women’s leadership bootcamps, we often use the DiSC® assessment tool to help our participants better understand their own styles, as well as those of their managers and colleagues. If an assessment is not an option for you, the best thing to do is to observe your managers or to simply ask them what their preferences are.
Adjusting your style to meet your manager’s may seem like a lot of work, but it can make a big difference in getting the support and results you want.
3. Communicate Effectively
Communication with your manager can be challenging, especially in today’s hybrid workplace, but it is absolutely essential to proactively maintain open lines of communication.
Just as your manager has their preferred working styles, you have yours. Communicate to your manager how you prefer to work. For instance, if your manager is stifling you with their micromanagement, they may have trouble delegating or letting go of control. Express to them that you work better when given some autonomy, and suggest setting milestone meetings and periodic (versus constant) check-ins to assure them that you’re on track. On the flip side, if you have a very “hands off” manager who isn’t giving you enough direction, it’s important to communicate your need for clarity sooner rather than later. Your manager may not be aware that you’re struggling, so this provides an opportunity for you to discuss how they can best support you.
It’s also important to be aligned with your manager when it comes to expectations for your performance. If you or your manager are unclear about what your role is, what your goals and objectives are, raise the issue for discussion. Ensuring a mutual understanding of your boundaries is also crucial. Over the course of the pandemic, many organizations have had to do more with fewer people. When managers don’t reallocate or adjust job responsibilities in a way that is realistic and achievable for employees, employees burn out. According to the 2021 Women in the Workplace study, a majority of employees say that their manager doesn’t help them shift priorities and deadlines or check in on their well-being on a consistent basis. Knowing this, take the initiative to let your manager know if you are experiencing burnout and want to partner with them to establish boundaries and set clearer expectations.
Managers also appreciate when team members share with them the “temperature” of the team as a whole, especially if they are removed from the day-to-day. If your team is experiencing burnout or tension, it may be time to give your manager a heads up that they need to reconnect with the team and clarify roles, reallocate workload, or create new rules of engagement that will work better for everyone.
4. Help Your Manager Do Their Job Better
Your relationship with your manager is a partnership, and as with any partnership, it takes two to make it successful. We all know that managers are crucial to our success, as their support and evaluation of our performance have an impact on our ability to advance. However, remember that it goes the other way as well–you also play a role in your manager’s success.
One way to do this is to make your manager’s job easier. For example, rather than bringing a slate of problems to your next meeting, come prepared with a few solutions as well. This shows you’re taking ownership of your work and thinking strategically. It also demonstrates that you view your relationship with your manager as a partnership, and that you are doing your part to achieve your common goals. Challenge yourself to make suggestions to your manager on how issues could be prevented, or processes could be made more efficient.
You can also help your manager by making sure they are well aware of your achievements. This is especially important for women, as women tend not to promote themselves as much as men do. Don’t assume your manager already knows about all the good work you’re doing, instead be clear about where you’ve added value. By the same token, if you’re facing roadblocks, be honest and let your manager know. Remember, in the absence of information, people tend to make up negative stories, so it’s in your best interest to proactively shape your own narrative. Again, come prepared with ideas about what resources or support you might need.
Another way you can help is to clearly articulate your career goals to your manager. If they are not aware of your aspirations, they cannot help you achieve them. Ask your manager for feedback on these goals. For example, what do they see as your strengths in relation to your goal, and where do they think you need to develop? What assignments could you take on to help you achieve your goal?
Learning how to manage your manager is an essential skill that demonstrates emotional intelligence and the ability to take initiative, key qualities that will help you advance. By empathizing with your manager, understanding their preferences and styles, and communicating effectively, you make your manager’s job easier. And when you are able to create value for your manager, it becomes a mutually beneficial partnership where they can more effectively help you achieve your own career goals.