Book Review: Managing Your Boss – Harvard Business Review Classics

In this popular Harvard Business Review book, John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter provide valuable guidelines for building this essential relationship – including tips for communicating mutual expectations and tactics for negotiating priorities.

The fifteen main takeaways I got out of this book are outlined below:

  1. Because two people can on occasion be psychologically or temperamentally incapable of working together, this can be an apt description. But more often, we have found, a personality conflict is only a part of the problem – sometimes a very small part.
  2. Some people behave as if their bosses were not very dependent of them. They fail to see how much the boss needs their help and cooperation to do his or her job effectively. These people refuse to acknowledge that the boss can be severely hurt by their actions and needs cooperation, dependability, and honesty from them. Some people see themselves as not very dependent on their bosses. They gloss over how much help and information they need from the boss in order to perform their own jobs well. This superficial view is particularly damaging when a manager’s job and decisions affect other parts of the orgabization.
  3. Most really effective managers accept this fact and assume primary responsibility for their own careers and development. They make a point of seeking the information and help they need to do a job instead of waiting for their bosses to provide it.
  4. Managing a situation of mutual dependence among fallible human beings requires the following: a) a good understanding of the other person and yourself, especially regarding strengths, weaknesses, work styles, snd needs; and b) that you use this information to develop and manage a healthy working relationship – one that is compatible with both people’s work styles and assets, is characterized by mutual expectations, and meets the most critical needs of the other person.
  5. Understanding the boss – managing your boss requires that you gain an understanding of the boss and his or her context, as well as your own situation… At a minimum, you need to appreciate your boss’s goals and pressures, his or her strengths and weaknesses. What are your boss’s organizational and personal objectives, and what are his or her pressures, especially those from his or her own and others at the same level. Also, his or her long suits and blind spots; preferred style of working, preference to get information through memos, formal meetings, or phone calls; his or her thrive on conflict or efforts to minimize it. Without this information, a manager is flying blind when dealing with the boss, and unnecessary conflicts, misunderstandings, and problems are inevitable.
  6. Managers who work effectively with their bosses seek out information about the boss’s goals, problems and pressures. They are alert for opportunities to question the boss and others around him or her to test their assumptions. They pay attention to clues in the boss’s behavior. Although it is imperative that they do this especially when they begin working with a new boss, effective managers also do this on an ongoing basis because they recognize that priorities and concerns change… So being sensitive of a boss’s work style can be crucial, especially when the boss is new.
  7. Understanding yourself – the boss is only one-half of the relationship. You are the other half, as well as the part over which you have more direct control. Developing an effective working relationship requires, then, that you know your own needs, strengths, weaknesses, and personal style. You are not going to change either your basic personality structure or that of your boss. But you can become aware of what it is about you that impedes or facilitates working with your boss and, with that awareness, take actions that make the relationship more effective.
  8. Although a superior-subordinate relationship is one of mutual dependence, it is also one in which the subordinate is typically more dependent on the boss than the other way around. This dependence inevitably results in the subordinate feeling a certain degree of frustration, sometimes anger, when his actions or options are constrained by the boss’s decisions. This is a normal part of life and occurs in the best relationships. The way in which a manager handles these frustrations largely depends on his or her predisposition toward dependence on authority figures.
  9. Both counter-dependence and over-dependence lead managers to hold unrealistic views of what a boss is. Both views ignore that most bosses, like everyone else, are imperfect and fallible. They don’t have unlimited time, encyclopedic knowledge, or extrasensory perception; nor are they evil enemies. They have their own pressures and concerns that are sometimes at odds with the wishes of the subordinate – and often for a good reason.
  10. … As Drucker points out, the implications are obvious. If your boss is a listener, you brief him or her in person, then follow it up with a memo. If your boss is a reader, you cover important items or proposals in a memo or report, then discuss them. Other adjustments can be made according to a boss’s decision-making style. Some bosses prefer to be involved in decisions and problems as they arise. These are high involvement managers who like to keep their hands on the pulse of the operation. Usually, their needs (and your own) are best satisfied if you touch base with them on an ad hoc basis. A boss who has a need to be involved will become involved one way or the other, so there are advantages to including him or her in your initiative. Other bosses prefer to delegate – they don’t want to be involved. They expect you to come to them with major problems and inform then about any important changes.
  11. Mutual expectations – the subordinate who passively assumes that he or she knows what the boss expects is in for trouble. Of course, some superiors will spell out their expectations very explicitly and in great detail. But most do not. And although many corporations have systems that provide a basis for communicating expectations (such as formal planning processes, career planning reviews, and performance appraisal reviews), these systems never work perfectly. Also, between these formal reviews, expectations invariably change.
  12. For the good of the organization, the boss, and the subordinate, a superior needs to hear about failures as well as successes. Some subordinates deal with good-news-only boss by finding indirect ways to get the necessary information to him or her, such as a management information system. Others see it that potential problems, whether in the form of good surprises or bad news, are communicated immediately.
  13. Dependability and honesty – without a basic level of trust, a boss feels compelled to check all of a subordinate’s decisions, which makes it difficult to delegate.
  14. Good use of time and resources – your boss is probably as limited in his or her store of time, energy, and influence as you are. Every request you make of your boss uses up some of these resources, so it’s wise to draw on these resources selectively. This may sound obvious, but many managers use their boss’s time (and some of their own credibility) over relatively trivial issues.
    Checklist for managing your boss:
  • a) Make sure you understand your boss and his or her context, including:
    • Goals and objectives.
      Pressures.
      Strengths, weaknesses and blindspots.
      Preferred work style.

    Assess yourself and your needs, including:

    • Strengths and weaknesses.
    • Personal style.
    • Predisposition toward dependence on authority figures.

    Develop and maintain a relationship that:

    • Fits both your needs and styles.
    • Is characterized by mutual expectations.
    • Keeps your boss informed.
    • Is based on dependability and honesty.
    • Selectively uses your boss’s time and resources.

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