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Refuse to Be Undermanaged – It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss [part 1]

This is the first in a four-part series.  View Part 2Part 3Part 4

By Bruce Tulgan, excerpted from It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss

This is part one in the It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss series

You show up at work one day and much of your job seems to be coming unglued: You have a voicemail from your manager telling you the project you worked so hard on for the last two weeks is all wrong. You think to yourself, “Well, I told you I didn’t have enough experience to take that task on!” Then you receive an email from a manager in another department, who is hounding you about “taking way too long” with yet another project – you need to get that to her “immediately.”

Meanwhile, you were planning on spending the morning finishing up one of your routine tasks – dotting some “i”s and crossing a few “t”s – but you received so many urgent emails, you figure you better answer them before you do anything else. Last week, the same scenario played out and you forgot to go back and dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s; in the end, the task had to be redone at the last minute. You ended up working very late that day and everybody was mad. You don’t want to do that again, so you’ve been trying to stay out of everybody’s way. But now you have these managers messing with your day before it even starts!

What’s going on? You think of yourself as a high performer. But you start second-guessing yourself: “One manager tells me to do one thing. Another one tells me to do something totally different. How am I supposed to know what takes priority? How am I supposed to know what is up to me and what’s not? The bosses here don’t have any idea how to manage! Only the rarest of them ever spends enough time with me to give me the guidance I need or to make sure I have the resources to do the job, or to help me problem-solve. Half the time, I don’t get any recognition for the work I do well, no matter how hard I work.”

If this is anything like your situation at work, either now or sometime in the recent past, then you are not alone!

What’s going on here?

It is tempting to look at the scenario described above and blame the managers or blame the entire enterprise. Maybe this company has a disproportionate number of managers who are true jerks… but probably not. It is more likely that the problem is hiding in plain sight: Undermanagement.

In organizations across all industries and at all levels, there is a shocking and profound epidemic of what I call “undermanagement”— the opposite of micromanagement: The vast majority of supervisory relationships between employees and their bosses lack the day-to-day engagement necessary to consistently maintain the very basics of management: clear expectations; necessary resources; real performance tracking; and fair credit and reward. In fact, most employees report that they feel disengaged from their immediate boss(es); that two-way communication is sorely deficient; and that employees rarely get the daily guidance, resources, feedback and reward that they need.

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Although undermanagement is not a household word like micromanagement — yet – it should be, because undermanagement is a success-crushing syndrome worth fighting against. Indeed, the consequences of undermanagement make the impact of micromanagement look like nothing:

  • Unnecessary problems occur.
  • Small problems (that could have been solved easily) turn into big problems
  • Resources are squandered
  • Employees perform tasks/responsibilities the wrong way for longer periods of time
  • Low performers hang around causing problems for everyone else (and collecting the same paycheck as everyone else too!)
  • High performers get frustrated, lose commitment, and think about leaving
  • Employees are not set-up to perform at their best
  • Managers spend their management time in all the wrong ways

So, who is responsible for this undermanagement epidemic? After all, isn’t it the manager’s job to manage? Shouldn’t the bosses be taking charge? Yes, I believe managing is a sacred responsibility. If there’s a problem, the boss is the solution. If you are the boss, you are the one everyone is counting on.

Unfortunately, too many leaders, managers, and supervisors are failing to lead, manage, and supervise. They simply do not take charge on a day-to-day basis. They fail to spell out expectations every step of the way, ensure necessary resources are in place, track performance, correct failure, and reward success. They don’t know how to, they don’t want to, or they are just afraid to.

When your managers give you responsibility without sufficient direction and support, that is not empowering you. That is downright negligent. Unfortunately, most managers have bought this false-empowerment philosophy and don’t take a stronger-hand when it comes to managing—they don’t even perform the basic tasks of managing. Most managers undermanage.

When They Undermanage, You Pay the Price

Whatever is behind your bosses’ undermanagement tendencies and despite the lack of management support you receive, you are still expected to meet today’s higher expectations at the job. You are under more pressure. You are expected to work longer, harder, smarter, faster, and better. There’s no room for down time, waste, or inefficiency. You must learn and use new technologies, processes, skills, all the while adjusting to ongoing organizational changes. You receive less guidance and support; work in smaller teams with greater requirements; and have less time to rest, recuperate, and prepare. And you want to know, “Boss, what do you want from me?”

Perhaps getting answers to these questions has always been hard, but at least in the workplace of the past, you could count on job security and long-term vesting rewards. As long as you kept your head down and your mouth shut and did as you were told, you had a good shot at staying employed and climbing the ladder. There was a good chance you would work for the same boss for a long time. Maybe you would both “climb the ladder” together in the organization. In the workplace of the past, nobody held your hand either, but in return you could hope that the system would take care of you in the long run.

Not anymore.

The chain of command is no longer clear in most organizations. Most organizational charts are flatter as layers of management have been removed in the last decade. More employees are being managed by short-term project leaders, instead of “organization-chart” managers. Who has authority over employees? The answer often depends on the project, task, and responsibility. Who is in charge? Whoever has control of resources, work conditions, and rewards. To whom do you answer today?  If you are like most employees, you answer to multiple bosses – some directly, and others indirectly. You are often pulled in different directions by these competing authority figures with competing interests and agendas. All of them have the ability to improve or worsen your daily work conditions, your chances of getting rewards, and your long-term career prospects. And all of them are different. Some are great. Some are good. Some are mediocre. Some are pretty bad. Some are downright horrible. Some are true jerks. They each have their own style, strengths, and weaknesses.

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Under these circumstances, you are the only one you can control. You can control your role and conduct in each of these relationships. You can control how you manage and how you get what you need from these relationships. You have no choice: If you want to survive, succeed, and prosper, you have to get really good at managing your bosses.

You rely on your immediate boss more than any other individual for meeting your basic needs and expectations at work, and for dealing with just about any issue that arises at work. The boss is your point of contact—but much more than that, on a daily basis, the boss defines your work experience. To become and remain a consistent high-performer, you need bosses who are strong and highly engaged, who know exactly who you are and exactly what you are doing every step of the way.  You need bosses who let you know that you are important and your work is important.  You need bosses who spell out expectations clearly; who teach you best practices; who warn you of pitfalls; who help you solve small problems before they fester and grow; and who reward you when you go the extra mile. You want bosses who will set you up for success and, thereby, help you earn what you need and want from the job, every step of the way.

Your ability to manage these relationships will have the single greatest impact on your productivity, quality, morale, and ability to earn credit and rewards for your contributions. You need strong bosses, so you are going to have to help them get there. That means you need to take charge and start managing your boss. You need to take responsibility for your role and your conduct in every single management relationship, with every single boss.

No matter who your boss may be on any given day, no matter what her style and preferences may be, there are four basics that you absolutely must take responsibility for getting from that boss:

  1. Clearly spelled out and reasonable expectations, including specific guidelines and a concrete timetable.
  2. The skills, tools, and resources necessary to meet those expectations or else an acknowledgment that you are being asked to meet those expectations without them.
  3. Accurate and honest feedback about your performance as well as course-correcting direction when necessary.
  4. The fair quid pro quo – recognition and rewards–in exchange for your performance.

Stay tuned for the rest of the entries in this series for best practices for managing your boss(es) daily, getting the information you need to understand what is expected of you, and how to track your own performance to get the recognition and rewards you deserve.

This is the first in a four-part series.  View Part 2Part 3Part 4


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at brucet@rainmakerthinking.com, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.

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