• Tamar Balkin

How Do I Navigate Work When My Boss Doesn’t Really Want To Be A Leader?

"Maybe we can

Find a place to feel good

And we can treat people with kindness

Find a place to feel good

Giving second chances

I don't need all the answers

Feeling good in my skin”


Treat People With Kindness by Harry Styles (click here for the music)


Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash


“My boss just doesn’t seem to want to deal with the upstream issues or the long-term ramifications of his decisions it’s so infuriating and makes the work of my team so much more difficult. Our customers and stakeholders are getting frustrated because we can’t meet their needs.”


Coaching client.


Occasionally during a coaching session I reflect that perhaps the boss is more in need of coaching than the client. One boss has a tendency to “get into the detail” of the work of my client’s direct reports. Another, isn’t thinking strategically, managing stakeholder relationships or advocating for resources. The challenge for my clients is to influence their boss’s without aggravating them.


To successfully manage up you need to begin with a clear understanding of what actually matters to your boss. Not what should matter, or what you would like to matter. Regular readers would know that setting aside a mutually convenient specific time to have the conversation is critical. At the outset it is important to temporarily put aside your goals and agenda and be fully present and curious about the purpose and goals of your Boss. The goal of the conversation is to understand what is going on for your boss now: what are their priorities, concerns, interests what is keeping them busy, what is causing stress? Preparation is crucial, for many of my clients it is necessary to both understand their bosses' business context and to manage their own emotional state. (Click here for my blog on Emotional Regulation). Regular readers would know that a curios conversation is not about agreeing but asking open questions, digging deeper when the other person shares feelings and facts. Really listening occurs when you can understand and confirm the essence of what the the other person is saying by reflecting it back in your own words. This practice not only serves to clarify your understanding but demonstrates clearly that you have really paid attention. From this foundation you can find areas of mutual alignment and deliver your message in terms that they can relate to. Remember it is not about promoting yourself or your goals but rather conveying what you have done in their context and the ways you can add value to what matters to the boss.



What competencies will help to manage up?


“Many leadership development efforts fail due to their “product-focused quick-fix mentality” instead of a willingness to invest in building leadership competencies.”

Ready and Conger (2003)

Look at the organisation from the perspective of your boss.
Are your expectations are realistic? Can the boss really impact the variables you wish they could? Are there confidential negotiations at play that you can not yet be cognisant of? Finally, take a moment to be empathetic and practice unconditional positive regard. Regular readers would be aware that there are many factors that will impact job motivation and performance. Remember that just because someone is in a senior leadership position does not mean they are immune to burnout, poor job fit or stressors in their work or personal life. Due to the nature of the professional relationship, you have with your boss it may not be appropriate for you to be privy to these individual factors. Personal and Interpersonal skills:
  • Be neutral and depersonalise, separate the job from the individual

  • Try to learn from the situation.

  • Reflect on your role in perpetuating the challenging aspects of the relationship

  • Get feedback on your interpersonal style and see where you may be having an impact

  • Look for common ground

  • Cultivate patience and emotional regulation

  • Prepare for a influencing conversation


“If everyone shared and swallowed their pride”

If Everyone Cared by Nickleback (click here for the music)


Organisational skills: Fortunately, or unfortunately despite formal organisational charts savvy employees know that to get things done they need to rely on the informal paths within organisations. There is a complex labyrinth of people, “there are gatekeepers, expediters, stoppers, resisters, guides, Good Samaritans and influencers. All these types live in the organisational maze” (Eichinger and Lombardo.)
To improve your organisational savvy take the time to:
  • Understand the complexity of the organisation

  • Look for opportunities to help others

  • Get to know a variety of people

  • Ask for help from a trusted advisor

  • Practice composure for the times you hit a dead end

  • Observe and learn from those who get things done,

  • Identify major gatekeepers and major helpers and build relationships

In addition, there will always be egos, issues, personal agendas and rivalries within organisations. The better you understand the goals and motives of others the better you will navigate their sensitivities and passions and get work done. So what about my client? As the session drew to a close my client remarked, If I take an objective view, it is unrealistic to expect my boss to have a huge impact”. He then paused and sighed loudly. “My team are ultimately kind people, I guess we can’t influence many things, but we can realign ourselves to a culture of kindness, to each other, to our colleagues, customers and even the boss. If we focus on being kind.. that will make work pleasant again.”
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