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Getting inside the mind of a manager

Getting inside the mind of a manager

The most important element in managing your boss is to let go of your own ego.

Do you hate coming into work in the morning? It is probably not the work you mind so much, but rather your boss is making your life a nightmare. Once you might have quit but, since the recession, you are probably stuck and you have to find a way to deal with it. Research shows that one of the main reasons people leave their jobs is because of poor relationships with their managers or inadequate leadership. So with a tough job market, there are many people gritting their teeth and biding their time until they can make an exit.

One way of making life bearable in the meantime is to "manage up", says US-based "corporate politics coach" Gary Ranker, who was a recent visitor to Sydney.

Ranker is a former president of Hallmark Cards in Germany who specialises in helping negotiate the power plays and emotional minefields that are unavoidable in almost any workplace. His clients include senior leaders at General Electric, Goldman Sachs and Sony.

He says the most important element in managing your boss is to let go of your own ego.

"Remember, it is not about you, it is about them," Ranker says.

This means allowing their bad behaviour to wash over you while you try to work out what is going on in their heads. Don't take it personally, try not to show emotion and work out how to best manage them.

"More than anything, when you deal with someone who is problematic, take it seriously and try to look through their eyes - even if their view is distorted," he says. "Try to think about how that person views the world, and how they view you. Begin to get inside them."

Then try to forestall their next "episode" by giving them the type of response that keeps their insecurities or other "inner demons" in check.

Meanwhile, make sure you document every interaction in case you need to protect yourself in the future. This may mean sending them an email detailing your understanding of an instruction or proceedings during a meeting.

"Maintain your sense of humour, it can help defuse a situation," Ranker says.

If you want to directly tackle their behaviour, talk to them about a specific incident as if it was all your fault, your inability to understand what was required by them.

Tell them you are the type of person who needs more clarification from them, which means you are likely to avoid misunderstandings or being blindsided.

Ranker says most of the dysfunctional managers he sees don't see themselves as bullies; they describe themselves as "hard taskmasters" or "people who don't suffer fools lightly". They all tend to mean the same thing: bully.

Most are surprised when they learn what effect their behaviour has on the performance of their organisation - and they are more likely to be concerned about that.

Ranker gathered some strategies on how to manage some typically difficult bosses, with the assistance of some of his PhD students in management and psychology from the Marshall Goldsmith School of Management at the Alliant International University of San Diego.

The bully

If they are giving you a dressing down in front of others, go quiet. Don't engage with them. Otherwise, avoid contact with them as much as possible and limit meeting times by scheduling them 15 minutes before they are expected elsewhere. Walk in with notes and take notes from your conversation so you don't forget anything. Try not to talk to them when they are stressed.

"What you don't want to do is trigger any defences they already have," says Ranker.

The micromanager

Give them more information than they ask for and unsolicited progress reports, which note the status or stage of completion on projects. This means they have less reason to peer over your shoulder.

Micromanagers are usually control freaks, so be proactive and keep them fully informed.

The indecisive boss

Make like a psychologist and keep asking clarifying questions to help them understand what it is they want you to do. Those questions will also help you find out whether they favour one action over another.

You can also tell them what the problem is and what you think the ideal solution is - they are likely to agree. Have a back-up solution in case they can't agree to the first.

There is a danger with this tactic, however, because if everything goes wrong with your idea, you make a handy scapegoat.

The paranoid person

Do not appear threatening in any way. Do not withdraw or attack, it will only make things worse. Don't acquiesce to their attacks, or you will mark yourself as an easy target and, if it is possible, let them know that you are not a threat to them.

Avoid getting into arguments and don't contradict yourself - it will only add to their paranoia.

"Overcommunicate wherever possible and never surprise the boss," says Ranker.

The grandiose boss

Don't try to make them change their show-off behaviour or tell them how it makes you feel - they can't empathise with you. Don't criticise them because they will get angry or defensive. Don't gossip about them, as they will have their spies.

Exercise an unusual amount of tact to protect their fragile self-image, esteem and worth and don't try to correct them, unless it is literally a matter of great importance and urgency.

If things go wrong with a project, accept responsibility and say you will do it differently next time.

The dysfunctional manager

This type of manager is just plain unpleasant. Make sure you document everything, don't play dirty and make sure you have witnesses when you ask for feedback. Keep as much of your communications as possible in electronic form. Take care making alliances with your manager's boss or clients, because it could be viewed as disloyalty.

The last laugh

Harro Drexler was so horrified over the years by the antics of bosses that he retired and then self-published a book called Managers Behaving Badly.

With degrees in chemistry, mathematics and business management, he worked in South Africa and Europe before emigrating to Australia to work as a business development manager for an organisation he prefers not to name.

He worked for nine years to commercialise a technology and, when he found an investor, organised a launch that included government ministers, all the scientists and technicians who worked on the project, the investors and management of his organisation - keeping his managers informed through a series of reports.

Then, four weeks before the launch, he received a panicked call from his superiors. He was apparently not "authorised" to organise launches and it was cancelled.

The investors went ahead and a company was listed, but management wanted a scapegoat and demanded Drexler's boss sack him. He refused.

"I went through a very bad time," Drexler says, and he soon left the firm.

A few years later, Drexler was invited back to be awarded a prize and medal for his success in commercialising the product.

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