Managing your boss

Careers  Relationships
06 July, 2015

Your manager is crucial to your success (and vice versa). How do you nurture this relationship?

Like many of you, I have had my fair share of both productive and unproductive relationships with my previous bosses. While I was recently reflecting on these relationships, I recognised that in the early part of my career, I tended to put too much of the onus of making the relationship work on my bosses. In hindsight, I was probably playing more of a recipient role rather than co-owning the relationship.

While many of us focus attention on how we can lead others better, we don’t think enough about our relationship with our supervisor.  What you probably forget is that your relationship with your manager is one of the most decisive and impactful working relationships that you will have. Your manager influences to a large extent, the kind of exposure, information, resources and even mentoring that you have access to.

True, there are many kinds of managers out there. Some, who are quite amazing and could end up being friends and mentors for life. Others, not so much. But let’s be honest, irrespective of who your manager is, it really does benefit you to make this relationship work. A strong, mutually valued relationship can be hugely beneficial on several fronts, but a strained relationship can become difficult to navigate. For many people, their manager is the person through whom they understand and experience their company. It is no surprise then, that more often than not, when things don’t work out as planned, as it often said, people end up leaving their managers and not their companies.

Nurturing your relationship with your boss is arguably, one of the most important skills that you need to develop. This isn’t about trying to play favourite or kissing up to your manager. It about creating a win-win relationship for both of you, which, by extension, your team and company, will benefit from. So, my message today focuses on what you need to do to become more effective at managing the relationship with your boss.

There are seven key aspects that we should consider:

1. You and your manager both need each other to be successful

This is the most important thing that you need to realise – whether you are a manager, or have one. The manager – team member relationship is not skewed one-way. It is about mutual dependence and respect and openly acknowledging this. You both need this relationship to work well, in order to be successful. Your manager cannot do it alone – much in the same way that you need your team members to truly commit to projects, so that you can, together, deliver on them.  If you think about it, you will realise that your manager too is grappling with her dependency on you and her other reports and by translation, your teams as well. So, you aren’t very different when it comes to this.

2. Your manager is both developer and evaluator

Your manager playa a dual role – as both the person responsible for your development, as well as the person who will evaluate your performance and determine to a large extent, how you progress. This is a bit of a tricky role, for both for you. And you need to figure out, together, the best way to walk this tightrope of guide and evaluator. To be able to truly partner you on your development journey, your manager needs you to be upfront about discussing the challenges that you face and the areas where you need to improve. But as some of you may have realised, opening up in this manner to the same person who also evaluates you, isn’t always easy. You end up worrying about being judged. This is why many people try to appear in as much control as possible around their managers. That isn’t the solution, long term, not if you are looking to grow and improve and want regular feedback and coaching.

3. Understand your manager as a person

Just like anyone else, your manager is a person first. You may not have given this much thought, but like with any other successful relationship, you need to understand the person behind the role. Who is she outside of work? What are the other roles she plays – as a parent, daughter, friend? What does she enjoy doing?  She will also have her own strengths, weaknesses and preferences. If you can start thinking about your manager as a person, you will be more likely to understand and appreciate how and why she reacts the way she does, and what you can do to improve and complement your relationship.

4. Get to know your manager’s priorities

Like you, your manager too is part of a larger organisation framework. She will have goals and deadlines handed down to her by her manager, and so on. She will prioritise basis her understanding of what needs focus and where she will make tradeoffs. So, you need to step back and develop an appreciation of this overall system and where you both fit in it. It will help you better understand why she makes the calls that she does. And it will help you better pitch your ideas when you need buy-in.

5. Be aligned on your ways of working together

Discuss openly the norms that will guide your relationship. How often does your boss want to get involved? What level of detail does she want to get into? How you will you report progress? Leverage your bosses time. But don’t let your relationship become one in which you simply accept the ways of working without explicit discussion.

6. Be clear about the support you need

You are responsible for your performance and your development. If you want support on this, then you need to ask for help. But before you do so, you should think through what kind of support you need. Do you need closer mentoring on a specific project? Do you need more access to information? Do you need a faster sign off on projects? Do you need specific training? Do you need to understand how to equip yourself for your next role? Do you need advice on how to manage your own team? The more structured you can make your request, the more likely you are to receive support along these lines. Very often, you may not be the only person who your manager has reporting into her. She will also have other priorities. So, the more focused you make this, the easier it will be for her to respond. It will also show her how invested you are in it and make her more likely to back you.

7.  Trust and respect your relationship

Bottom line – no relationship is going to work without mutual trust and respect. Ask yourself – can your boss always count on you to do the right thing? Your manager will expect you to be loyal to her and have her back. This doesn’t mean that you need to be blindly loyal. It means that you need to come across as a team. That you will and must continue to have open conversations and even agree to disagree on issues, but at the same time, have a united stand. You must respect any conversations that your manager has with you, especially when she takes you into confidence. Never go behind your boss’s back. Don’t diss her. I remember reading this quote “If you think your boss is stupid, remember, you wouldn’t have a job if he was smarter” :-).

Noted business humorist and novelist, Gil Schwartz, who writes by the pen name Stanley Bing (he has been writing a column for Fortune magazine for over ten years), wrote some tongue-in-cheek tips for managing your boss:

  1. Talk to the boss every day you can. Say hello. Don’t wear him or her out. Just begin to establish the idea that you are a human being, not just a function, and probably a pretty good person, too. Look him in the eye when you do so.
  1. Notice when he or she comes in to the office. Be there when she gets here. Don’t be a pest. Be a presence.
  1. Wander by his or her office now and then. If the boss doesn’t seem to mind it? Sit and have a cup of coffee. Bossing is lonely. Be a friend.
  1. Look for opportunities to make your manager’s life easier. I can’t tell you what that is, but there usually are such chances. Seize them when they come.
  1. Never present a problem without also bringing along a couple of solutions. You are there to solve things, not make the boss do so.
  1. Tell the boss the whole truth. If you have information that might interest the boss, bring it to him even if it might be slightly upsetting to him.
  1. Don’t whine. If he or she treats you mean now and then, just suck it up. Don’t be all hurt and tender. There’s no crying in baseball.
  1. Step up to the plate. If there’s anything going on that requires a volunteer, do so.
  1. Show your appreciation. Remember that there is no boss in the world that does not appreciate professional, moderate, responsible, dignified sucking up. I’m not talking about lathering up his or her helmet all the time. I’m talking about conveying respect and admiration when he or she requires it. Anybody that tells you that sucking up — done properly and with restraint — is wrong or icky is simply advising you to disarm one of the most powerful weapons in your arsenal.
  1. Share glory, but not blame. When there is praise due for something well done, let your boss have the credit, even if you deserve it. If there is blame, accept it, even if HE deserves it. There is only one person who you have to please here, and it’s not Mr. Carruthers on the 56th Floor. It’s Bob, your boss, who works down the hall. And HE knows who deserves the credit and the blame.

At the end of the day though, your relationship with your boss will be moulded by the results you deliver. Unless you deliver the results that are expected, you are not really going to have a productive relationship. And it is not just about the results, but also how you achieve them. If you achieve your targets but don’t treat your teams well or if you play games, then this is not going to sit well with her.

Remember that you cannot succeed in this relationship at the expense of your boss; you will rise or fall together. And like with any other relationship, this needs to be nurtured.

You need to work on it.

We all have stories to tell about our managers through the years and how these relationships have shaped us. I look forward to you writing in with your personal experiences and suggestions on what we could all do better to make these more meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships.


  • Mihir Mohapatra says:

    Excellent article, very well said!

  • Sunita Devrani says:

    Interesting. Loved Stanley Bing’s 10 tips. I guess like all relationships this needs to be invested in…

  • Samir Suryawanshi says:

    Vivek, your thoughts are quite similar to one of the CEOs of my erstwhile employer. The managing supervisor is the key and not just as a functional senior. The issue is it boils downs to one’s maturity levels, which typically aren’t very high at the beginning of the career for many! I too wasn’t an exception on this front, when I started my career 12 years back 🙂 But one should learn ‘taali ek haath se nahi bajti’.

  • Jagruti Saxena says:

    Very well rounded off article. Seems like the next chapter of my own article published recently where of course the boss’ perspective was missing 🙂

    What I really appreciate is these balanced thoughts come from a manager who would not only inspire several other reportees but also other managers.

  • Pooja says:

    This has been one of my favourite posts, believe me, I have read it several times and trying to implement the tips you share. Point 5 (Never present a problem without also bringing along a couple of solutions) hits home. I have come to follow this diligently and seeing a change in my relationship with my boss. Even though my solutions are not always viable but my boss now asks for my opinion, even on projects I am not directly involved. It has made me feel like a part of the team.

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