It seems straightforward enough: Managers manage. Workers work.
But in the real workaday world, managing your manager can be critical to success and happiness in a job.
“Frankly speaking, making sure you have an effective relationship with your boss and managing that relationship is probably one of the most important things you can do for your career,” said Ethan R. Burris, assistant professor in the management department at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business.
It’s a hot-button topic that takes up classroom hours in business school management courses as academics and experts develop strategies for how to manage the boss, Burris said.
Last week, the United States was offered a headline-news example of how not manage the boss: Talk smack about him and others in the boss’s management team to a magazine reporter.
It wasn’t helpful for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s career.
President Barack Obama relieved McChrystal as commander of American forces in Afghanistan on Wednesday after a magazine story reported snide comments the general and his staff had made about the president and senior White House officials.
In some ways, McChrystal committed a basic mistake of managing up: Don’t embarrass your boss in public.
“Getting the president’s attention is certainly not the easiest thing to do when you are across the world,” Burris said. “But airing those concerns in a public forum is probably not the best way to get results.”
Burris studies how and when employees speak up in the workplace. His research, conducted with colleagues around the country, has shown that though many people voice concerns in the workplace, many don’t. Though some keep silent because they expect retribution, he said, more do so out of a sense of futility.
Voicing opinions in the workplace can be part of healthy give-and-take between boss and workers. Those who express concerns and speak up are more likely to work beyond the minimum required of their jobs, Burris said.
But employees need to pick their battles, offer solutions and present concerns in a way palatable to the boss.
“Barge in and yell three ways to Sunday, that is not an effective way,” Burris said.
Prescribing methods for managing the boss can be difficult.
“At the end of the day you are dealing with people ,” Burris said, “and every person is different.”
In general, it is best to “look at the boss as a person, someone who is human just like you, someone who has strengths and weaknesses,” said Karen Burns, author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You can Actually Use.
That can mean paying attention to how the boss communicates — on the phone, by e-mail, for example – and responding in kind. Perhaps it means noticing that she’s always in a bad mood after a particular meeting. So stay away from her until after that meeting is over, Burns said.
Do things the way the boss likes them, even if you can provide a laundry list of reasons you disagree.
With extremely difficult bosses, the rules change to become more about protecting yourself by creating other strong office-place ties and finding an outlet for confidential complaining.
So what’s the difference between managing the boss and pandering to power?
“It is only sucking up if you are actually sucking up,” Burns said. Otherwise, it’s called getting along with others, cooperation or giving and taking as part of a team.
Or as Burris describes the employee-boss relationship: “Both are very much interdependent. They depend on each other for resources and to get the work done.”