We talk about the office as if there are some positions that are management, and some that are not. And while that might be reflected on the job description and in pay, it’s not really true. Even if you have no direct reports under you, you’re not free of these people-centric duties. If you’re trying to avoid burnout and build your dream job, you should be managing your manager.
Sounds sort of disrespectful, doesn’t it? But managing your manager doesn’t mean going over their head or crossing any lines of seniority. In fact, your manager probably manages their own manager. That’s because it’s actually key to keeping your work running smoothly and feeling happy in your position.
In fact, compensation, culture and career monitoring platform Comparably recently released research that shows it’s not long work hours that make people feel burnout. (Although you should still be talking about them during job offer negotiation.) The biggest reason all the people surveyed listed for that dreaded feeling was “unclear goals.” On a related note, most people listed “bad manager” or “commute” as the second reason. There’s little you can do about your commute unless you’re willing to change your address or job. But many times you think you have a “bad manager” simple because they give you “unclear goals.” Managing your manager is a way to solve this issue once and for all.
How to manage your manager
When done correctly, managing your manager only makes you look good. Essentially, you’re forcing them, through polite means, to give you information you need to succeed at your job. And sure, there are some bosses that are petty and don’t want their workers to get ahead. But those are the minority. (If you have a boss like this, we hope you’re currently looking for other opportunities.) Most want you to excel because it makes them look better. Sometimes they just don’t know that they’re not setting you up for success.
Get to know your boss as a person
They’re not just the person that hands out raises and disciplines when necessary. One of the keys to managing your boss is getting to know who they are as a real person. They have career goals just like you. There are problems at work that keep them up at night. And yes, they’re probably managing their own boss.
By getting to know your manager’s goals and stressors, you get more context on your own projects. Once you know where their focus is and what they hope to achieve this year, you know the end game for everything on your team. Even if your manager gives you a vague directive, it’s easier to imply what they want if you know these things about them.
Sending meeting invites with agendas
You might not get much of your manager’s attention. While that can make you feel like you’re not a priority, it could just be because they know they can rely on you to get your work done. Try to reserve judgement and just get exactly what you need out of the minutes you do get. Make sure there’s a clear agenda going into each meeting and have it with you when the sit-down starts. This will ensure that nothing slips through the cracks, leaving you to mind read your bosses’ desires or needs.
Follow up over email
Follow up each meeting with an email outlining what was discussed and next steps. Even if they were unclear, this is how you manage your manager into clear answers. If they were vague, do your best to come up with a plan you think they meant to convey. Send it to them over email with the minutes from the meeting. If they respond and say your plan isn’t what they wanted, great. Now you’ll get some clear direction from them heading into the next steps. If they don’t get back to you, you now have documentation that you presented a plan and were never corrected. Hopefully you never have to use it, but it doesn’t hurt to keep yourself covered.
Come ready with solutions
It really doesn’t matter what the complaint is, from needing more feedback from your boss to an inefficient work process. If you want to complain, spin it into a helpful suggestion. Part of managing your manager is making sure they hear you, and that’s more likely to happen if you’re helpful. Complaining without offering solutions only adds to their list of things to take care of. If you come with a solution to suggest, you might get your way or at least something close to it.
This is essential for asking for feedback. If you feel you have unclear goals because your boss isn’t communicating, suggest a solution. Get a feel for their schedule and suggest a one-on-one meeting routine based on their calendar so you two can levelset. Then, back to previous points, set the agenda. If you need to check in about a project, make that clear. If you want feedback on your performance, outline how you’d like to break that up into discussion points. Managing your manager this way helps them do their job but also makes it more likely you’ll get what you need.
Why managing your manager is essential
It’s not always comfortable at first to manage your boss. Most of us are taught to simply follow the leader, but that doesn’t help anyone. Few managers are given the leadership training they need to excel, so you’ll help both of you by pitching in and helping the process.
Unfortunately, most of us hold at least one toxic job at some point throughout our careers. In those cases, it’s the documentation that matters. If your company and boss cut employees loose frequently, managing your manager ensures you have a paper trail of your assignment. Our mental trick for surviving a toxic workplace only works for so long. Guard yourself while you hunt for a place that will actually appreciate all you bring to the table.