I’ve had plenty of managers in my career. I’ve had know-it-all managers, laid-back managers, smartest-person-in-the-room managers, and incredibly collaborative managers who brought out my best ideas and strongest work ethic.
In some cases, the relationships were healthy. In others, they were toxic. But each experience taught me something about managing people and—more importantly—managing my managers.
Studies show that having an unhealthy relationship with your boss is bad for productivity and mental well-being. The University of Manchester Business School found that when managers lack empathy and act narcissistic it increased “the prevalence of workplace bullying, counterproductive work behavior, job dissatisfaction, psychological distress and depression among subordinate employees,” wrote researcher Abigail Phillips.
A study from the University of Michigan found that recipients of “incivility” at work—like condescending comments, put-downs and sarcasm—feel more mentally fatigued. That can lead to “incivility spirals” where the recipients of bad behavior start exhibiting bad behavior of their own. There’s also a big price tag—the average annual impact on companies is $14,000 per employee due to loss of production and work time. And bad bosses lead to employee attrition. In fact, a Gallup poll found that half of the adults surveyed left a job to get away from a manager at some point in their careers.
Why Bad People Managers Become People Managers
When employees excel, leadership wants to reward them with a promotion—and oftentimes that means making them people managers. Even if they’ve never been a boss before. Even if they have no emotional intelligence.
“Leadership wants to promote them but the higher you rise, the more people you’re going to manage,” said Avery Blank, a leadership expert and business consultant. “It’s this natural equation that in order for people to advance in their careers, you have to promote them—and higher-level employees typically have to manage people.”
Organizations should think about different ways to promote and reward top performers (especially those who lack leadership skills). If they excel at being a sales rep, let them be a superstar salesperson. If they excel at IT, give them the most complex IT problems and higher pay. Or at the very least, train people to be better bosses.
“Unfortunately there is a lack of people management training for mid managers—particularly in-house training,” said Blank. “Usually at organizations, a lot of their resources are focused on developing early-career professionals and developing executives but not so much on the mid managers.”
10 Ways to Manage Your Manager
If you find yourself stuck with a difficult manager, don’t panic. These 10 strategies will help you manage even the most annoying and exacting managers around.
- Be flexible but have boundaries. Sure, you’re willing to stay late or come in early to work on a big project. But don’t make it a regular thing. If you constantly stay in the office until 9 p.m., it’ll become the expectation. Learn how to say “no” and communicate that taking on too much work lowers productivity and quality.
- Use reflective listening. When your manager tells you something, repeat it back to them so they know you get it. “This is a basic social work technique for dysfunctional people to clarify intent and diffuse potentially explosive situations,” said Ilene Marcus a workplace expert who mentors on boss-subordinate dynamics and wrote a book called Managing Annoying People. “This translates well to the corporate world, where I have used this with the most annoying managers or those that are overextended and may not be thinking or conveying their message clearly.”
- Know their triggers, especially if you have a boss who has a hot temper. Anticipating their needs and realizing what’s going to set them off—and why—will help you avoid those pitfalls.
- Ask about priorities. “Your manager may be giving you 10 projects to work on and you’re overloaded,” said Blank. “So ask which projects are most important so you can manage your time and ultimately deliver.”
- Document everything. If you’re feeling like the relationship with your boss is going downhill, document what you’re doing and why you’re making certain decisions. This works particularly well with bosses who change their minds constantly or are too overextended to remember the directions they gave in the first place. Have a talk with your boss about a project? Send them a recap email. Make a big decision? Send them an email saying you’re going to do this “unless told to do it differently.”
- Build trust and don’t undermine. “Keep your boss well informed. Don’t hide information. Be willing to ask tough questions and share things that are true, even if they might be hard to say and hard to hear,” said Kim Turnage and Larry Sternberg, authors of Managing to Make A Difference. “When you disagree with your manager’s decisions, do it in private. Support the decisions in public, even if you don’t agree. Remember, you might be wrong. Don’t speak negatively about your boss. That’s blatantly disloyal.”
- Be a problem solver not a problem creator. Your manager is busy. Oftentimes, you don’t know the day-to-day pressures they’re facing—and the last thing they need is more problems. So find places where you can make the organization more efficient, find ways to save money, or step up and take some workload off their plate.
- Share good news. “Don’t create a situation where you only interact with your boss when there’s a problem or when you’re going to ask for something,” said Turnage and Sternberg. “Share a team success, share something great about one of your team members or share a new idea.”
- Know your rights. If your boss is too much of a bully, pushes too hard or—most importantly—violates your rights, say something to them or to HR. “Never forget you have rights in the workplace,” said employment attorney Richard Celler. “Use your voice when employer actions violate those rights. Communicate and give them the chance to make corrections.”
- Know when enough is enough. Don’t be afraid to quit! There’s another opportunity right around the corner. “It takes guts and confidence,” said Blank, “but for your sanity and your career, sometimes you’ve got to know when it’s time to move on.”