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When Your Boss Stinks at Managing Down


Many of the managers I work with have very busy bosses who they rarely see. Their  question is, “How can I grow, learn or even be effective when my boss spends time with his/her boss, but is not very available when I need support?”

In John C. Maxwell’s book, 360 Degree Leader, he offers specific principles for leading down, leading up, and leading across – in essence, how to be a more effective leader.

It can be discouraging when your boss is good at leading up but not at leading down. He or she may be only focused on promoting themselves to their boss, adding value to their boss, or looking good, and they may spend an inordinate amount of time in their boss’s meetings, or building relationships to further their own career.

Managing up to the exclusion of managing down results in them sometimes taking credit for your work, neglecting to acknowledge you and your teammates for your strengths and contributions, and spending little time developing your capabilities as individuals or a team.

To be fully engaged and satisfied at work, employees need recognition, acknowledgement, feedback and opportunities for development. In fact, research shows that 65% of a person’s job satisfaction is dependent on their relationship with their boss. If it is a bad or nonexistent relationship, they will disengage, and perhaps even quit.

To this I say two things: Learn what the boss is doing and become better at managing up yourself, and learn to develop yourself by owning your own career development.

Manage up

To turn this around, first admit that managing up is important. You should want your boss to be on good terms with his/her boss. You will benefit if your boss is successful at getting resources and gaining influence, which should trickle down to you and your department. That said, it is your job to improve this relationship.

If you are only seeing your boss infrequently, make those meetings more value-packed. First, book time on the boss’s calendar. Be proactive and think ahead. Be very prepared for the meeting so that you can update him/her on your monthly or quarterly accomplishments in addition to asking for things.

Another pattern I see is that managers go to their bosses with problems to solve instead of with solutions. Get in the habit of finding others in the organization you can work with to brainstorm, problem solve and come up with creative solutions to issues. Then, when you finally do get face time with the boss, you can propose or announce your solution instead of just pointing out the problems or complaining. The boss will appreciate it and your credibility will improve as a result.

Be in charge of your own career development

In a meeting with your boss, always ask for something. Get over the belief that it is your boss’s job to develop you. It is your job to own this. Think about your long-term career goals and create a plan to achieve them. Use the time with your boss to ask how you can get there, and ask for specific assignments that can give you needed exposure and experience.

Ask to lighten his/her load. Ask what they can delegate to you, e.g., leading a meeting, creating and running a task force, being your division or organization’s representative on a cross-functional project, the list is long and varied. Be creative. If you don’t ask, you won’t get. At least if you ask, there is a 50/50 chance you will get what you want.

Stay tuned for a future post about how bosses can show appreciation to others – something we will all thrive on.

Have you ever felt like your boss was better at managing up than managing down? How did that affect you? How did you handle it?

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