How to Manage Your Boss

It's one of the most common questions I hear: "How can I influence my boss? How can I manage up?"

About the Author

Patrick Lencioni is a business consultant and author whose books include "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" and "Death by Meeting."

My response disappoints people who are looking for a subtle, clever interpersonal strategy for manipulating a manager. I put the onus right back on the employee.

Anyone who wants to influence their boss has to start by accepting that the manager actually does want to do better. Many employees seem to think their bosses have no desire to improve. How do I know this? Because whenever I ask mid-level managers if they want to improve their management skills, and if they are open to suggestions, they say yes. Most of them genuinely seem to mean it. But when I ask if they think their bosses share that desire for improvement and feedback, they usually give me a skeptical look and shake their heads -- without realizing the contradiction of their response.

This discrepancy can be attributed to the fundamental attribution error, a concept I learned in a social psychology class I took in college. According to the theory, we tend to assume that other people's faults stem from internal, fundamental flaws. But we attribute our own faults to temporary environmental factors. For instance, when our boss manages poorly, we believe that he does it because he intends to and is inherently a bad leader. When we manage poorly, we're simply making a mistake because of the pressure we're under.

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Managing up

Of course, this makes no sense. Until we realize and address our natural but dangerous biases, we won't be able to give our managers the benefit of the doubt and accept that they are really open to our suggestions for improvement. When we do that, we can move on to the second step of managing upward: Taking the right approach.

The key to doing this second step right is mastering something I call the "kind truth." To understand the kind truth approach, it is helpful to look at the two most ineffective standard approaches.

The "activist" method is best demonstrated when a frustrated employee charges into the manager's office as a self-appointed representative of the people, defiant and determined to put the clueless leader in his place. This often works on television and in movies, but in reality it is usually ineffective. It puts the leader in an extremely difficult situation, forced to choose between defending himself in the face of an apparent revolt and cowering under pressure. Most leaders with any pride will choose to defend.

The other approach that doesn't work is the sycophantic method, whereby a well-intentioned employee ingratiates himself to the leader by regularly agreeing with him and telling him how wonderful he is, with the intention of one day slipping in helpful and subtle suggestions for improvement. This doesn't work because subordinates who suddenly find themselves in the good graces of a boss quickly realize that they like their new status. So they balk when it comes to being honest and putting their improved position at risk. And their boss isn't usually going to beg them to be tough on him, happy to have new friends.

The best approach, the kind truth method, involves honestly empathizing with the manager's situation, and expressing that empathy. By appreciating what the manager is facing and why he might be struggling, you open him up to hearing a well-intentioned suggestion about how he can do a better job.

How do I know this works? Because for many years I used it and found myself rewarded for doing so by my superiors. I was the guy that people pushed into the CEO's office and said, "You tell him!" Virtually every time I spoke the kind truth, I found that the CEO listened to me and heeded my advice. Over time I found that he started turning to me. He knew I wouldn't rant and rave at him, nor kiss up. Instead, I would offer candid, helpful advice.

What if this approach doesn't work for you? What if you are punished or shunned for this? That is probably a good sign that it's time to polish your résumé, without guilt or second thoughts, and find someone new who is open to being upwardly managed.

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