How to Transform a Bad Manager into a Great One

You shouldn’t have to rely on luck to have a great boss. The one way to change the odds in your favour? Stop just being managed, start managing up.

The relationship with your manager is usually a source of the greatest joys and sorrows in the workplace. If you work in an organisational setting, you are well aware of how crucial it is to nurture this relationship in the right way. The better you connect with your boss, the happier you tend to feel about your job. After all, they are the person you spend most of your waking hours with. If the odds have been against you, is there a way to transform a bad boss into a great one?

For many employees, the relationship with their manager is a challenging one. To complicate things, modern workers do not report into one single manager anymore. It is actually common practice to be accountable to a number of superiors for a wide array of responsibilities. As a result, it can often feel like you are juggling glass balls with no prior practice. To top it off, few employees are lucky enough to actually choose their manager — or managers, for that matter. Being in sync with different working styles, whilst keeping your primary manager happy, is no easy task. This feeling of overwhelm is not unusual but many feel uncomfortable opening up about it.

You may not be able to radically change your manager but you can transform your experience of working with them. The answer lies in the art of managing up. Simply put, managing up is about how you communicate and positively influence your manager to create the best work environment and growth opportunities for yourself. Traditionally, a lot of writing on managing up has focused on middle managers. It looked at how they can effectively handle their own manager whilst guiding their subordinates. But managing up is a highly useful skill even if you have no other employees to manage except yourself.

One of the preconceived ideas about managing is thinking that it is a one-way street. The most common view is that the managers lead their employees who, in turn, execute on whatever they are being told to do. In fact, the reality is much more nuanced. You often have to drive what projects you are involved in and how you go about completing a task. If a manager is disengaged, you need to take over and guide your career to accomplish your objectives. If, on the contrary, your manager is overbearing, you will need to reclaim your autonomy. Ultimately, managing up is about taking ownership of your professional path and being pro-active in improving the status quo.

Three principles will support you in achieving your aim in a smoother and wiser way.

#1 Understanding: put yourself in your manager’s shoes

Understanding should be about both you and your manager. Start putting yourself in your manager’s shoes, as hard as it may seem to relate. You need to understand where their priorities lie and what their incentives are. These insights will support you in understanding some of their behaviours. You can then map out where your differences occur. Don’t skip this step and try to be empathetic. Whatever you advocate for yourself needs to come from a place where you can achieve a mutual benefit. For example, it may be that your boss is micromanaging you. As unpleasant as this is, it could stem from a desire to obtain perfect results and an anxiety about a failure to deliver. If you want to gain more autonomy, start by building the trust needed for them to let go.

#2 Communicating: talk about situations, not personal behaviours

Once you feel you have an adequate understanding of your manager’s behaviour, start building a strategy around communicating your wishes. One of the key drivers that makes relationships dysfunctional at work is people’s fear to address their needs. This fear is completely understandable, especially in a very hostile environment. Nevertheless, there are ways to express your preference without being rude or overly direct. The best way to approach this mission is to talk about situations, rather than personal behaviours. For example, if you feel your manager is disengaged, you could say that it would be helpful for you to have some additional guidance. The wrong way to go about it would be to put blame on them. Leave any resentments behind and demonstrate goodwill. What you want is cooperation, not conflict.

#3 Acting: be pro-active and pre-empt

Managing up is not simply about communicating your needs and waiting for your manager to change behaviours. It takes time and effort on your part too. You need to drive your work in accordance with what fulfills and supports you professionally. Say you want to get more involved in a certain project to develop some expertise. Your best bet is to be pro-active: bring ideas and solutions on the table and show your commitment. Or, you may have noticed that your manager wants a daily report of your work. Is there a way you can streamline your reporting? Relieve yours and your manager’s stress by pre-empting these needs.

Managing up is a process that takes times. Like any skill, it’s one that you need to practice. Start with these simple principles to guide your approach and assess your results. Each manager-employee relationship is different and requires a different set of actions. Take a moment to assess your personal circumstances. Many situations that seem difficult at work can have a solution. It’s yours to create.

I am a coach and trusted advisor to driven and gifted people who feel there’s an inkling of rebellion in them. I help them create more fulfilment and reduce stress in their work and careers, on their terms. Connect with me here:

Coach — Career and Work Transformation | PhD Researcher | Facilitator

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