By Gemma Morris
9th September 2015

“I hate my boss.” How many times have you heard someone say that? Maybe you've said it yourself? It’s all too common. In fact, recent research has suggested that people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. It’s not the fact that they are being overworked or underpaid – they are actually finding it difficult to work with their supervisor.

So how do you cope with a challenging boss? Before you consider heading straight for the door, it’s possible that with a bit of analysis and strategy – and patience – you can find a way to work around your boss’s weaknesses, and even turn them to your advantage.

Analysis: Identify the problem

What is it that is causing the tension? Whilst it’s true that sometimes it’s just a personal dislike, it’s more likely that there are specific issues that need to be spelt out. Take an inventory and be as specific as possible. Is your boss unavailable? Unsupportive? Bad at his or her job? Insecure about trying to impress senior managers? A useful exercise is to try to put yourself in his shoes and understand his motivations – that can be the key to developing a helpful strategy.

Strategy: Find the solution

The secret here is to ‘manage up’, otherwise known as ‘managing your manager’. For each problem you identify with your boss, try to think of a creative way to deal with it and work around the constraints presented by his weaknesses; offer to take on tasks that you know you are better at and play to each other’s strengths.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

Problem: Your boss is particularly inefficient at analysing large amounts of data but better at presenting the findings to senior management.

Solution: Offer to take charge of the analysis of data and let your boss do the presentation so that he can play to his strengths.

Problem: Your boss was clearly hired or promoted into the role because of his technical skills – for example, he may be a top data scientist, or an expert in architecture, SQL or big data – but has no management or leadership skills.

Solution: This is a very common occurrence. All too often, promotions into management roles are given as a reward for technical excellence, even when the candidate lacks such ‘soft skills’ as listening, long-term vision, or basic people management skills. In this scenario, try to communicate as much as you can with your manager about issues your team is facing, what guidance you need and what decisions need to be made. If there is a leadership vacuum, ask how much you are empowered to do in order to fill it. Then become the go-to person in your group and focus on giving the best performance you can.

Problem: You and your boss just don’t seem to communicate well.

Solution: Communication is a two-way street – maybe it’s worth thinking about your own communication style and other ‘soft skills’. In our recent white paper, we talked about the need for data professionals to have a balance of technical and more intangible talents, such as active listening and empathy. Are you using those skills to the best of your ability?

Problem: Your boss is invisible – that is, he’s not around much and he communicates primarily through emails. Sometimes known as the ‘no-boss boss.’

Solution: This elusive character must be monitored and tracked with vigilance. Yes, it may be exhausting but try to pin him down for weekly catch-up sessions, with yourself or the rest of the team. Stop by his office for informal chats. If he travels a lot, phone him when you know he’ll have downtime in his diary. It may not seem fair, but taking on the responsibility for improving communications can yield rewards.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the best approach is to do what you can to ensure your boss’s success. It won’t undermine your own; if anything, it makes you indispensable. However tempting, don’t use the boss’s bad behaviour as an excuse for your own. Take the high road wherever possible and always stay focused on giving your best performance. If you run out of options, don’t badmouth him/her – be sure to observe the proper channels in speaking with HR or senior managers, and document everything along the way.

We know that life with a bad boss can be incredibly stressful. But before you call it a day and pack it all in, do what you can to strengthen your own position. Learning to manage your manager can make all the difference. 

Have you ever had a horrible boss? How did you handle it? What’s your best advice for managing up?


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