A lack of productivity, trust and engagement are just some of the negative effects that stem from having a boss with a big ego. Learning to ‘manage up’ can make things easier.
Type “My boss is…” into Google and the suggested searches are… interesting.
My boss is bullying me. My boss is gaslighting me. My boss is causing me anxiety. My boss is toxic. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t had a less-than-ideal manager.
Take Jessica*, a high level executive at a multinational software company. She’s respected, successful and at the top of her game. But while outwardly it looks like she’s killing it career wise, she spends her days at work feeling anxious and on edge. Why?
Her Google search might look something like this: “My boss is a narcissist”.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with narcissistic personality disorder often have “an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others”.
That’s not exactly the recipe for a great boss. And if you believe the headlines, narcissism is on the rise. In fact, Charmi Patel FCIPD, Associate Professor in International Human Resource Management at Henley Business School in the UK, who has been coaching Jessica, says many consider it an epidemic.
“Often people at high levels suffer from [narcissistic personality disorder] … You can have grandiose narcissism, or covert narcissism, and both are equally dangerous, is what I’m learning through my coaching,” she says.
“When you have a person who is your superior, or even your subordinate or a co-worker, and they have these behavioural issues, your mental health suffers massively. [Jessica] feels she has to watch her every move, because her boss might call her incompetent. She’s always watching out for manipulation and isn’t sure how to respond to his emails or how to communicate with him in a group setting.”
Even if your boss leaves a lot to be desired, it’s usually in your best interests to make the relationship work. So whether your boss is a raging narcissist like Jessica’s, a ditherer or has an oversized ego, learning to ‘manage up’ could be the solution.
Not got time to read the whole article? Here are some quick tips from our experts on managing up.
- Implement 360-degree feedback – and use it.
- Have transparent policies that set out the ‘dos and don’ts’ of good behaviour in your workplace.
- Get to know your boss’s personality type and act accordingly. Are you dealing with a risk-averse leader? Make an effort to put them at ease. Have a boss with a big ego? A bit of flattery might actually be a good thing.
- Be empathetic. Having a leader who’s lacking can be annoying, even infuriating. But try to put yourself in their shoes and approach the situation with compassion, rather than anger.
Learn how to manage up
“‘Managing up’ is a polite way of saying we all have to deal with or manage people who have extreme personalities,” says Patel.
“It could include managing bad behaviours, or it could be motivation-related, such as managing someone who is risk averse or who isn’t taking the right steps that are needed for your organisation.”
In all these scenarios, understanding your boss’s behaviour, and their underlying motivations, is key, says Patel. Upskilling in psychology, and being well-versed in different personality types, is a good place to start, she says. Short courses such as AHRI’s Applied emotional intelligence and Having difficult conversations can also help develop your skills in communicating with difficult bosses.
“Managing people is an art, as much as it is a skill, and you need to develop both … At least if you understand why people behave the way they do, you’re able to work through those things with them,” she says.
“It’s all about work and organisational psychology – if you try to understand the behaviours, and the reasons behind those behaviours, then you’re able to tell why your boss is doing what he or she is doing.”
“‘Managing up’ is a polite way of saying we all have to deal with or manage people who have extreme personalities.” – Charmi Patel FCIPD, Associate Professor in International HR Management, Henley Business School
For example, in her research into narcissistic personality disorder at work, Patel found that both covert and grandiose narcissism “stems from deep-rooted insecurity”.
“It might be very difficult to change their behaviour completely, but knowing the psychology helps, because you’re able to work with them and help make them more self-aware.”
The impact of incompetence
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Chair of Business Psychology at University College London, knows better than most the impact “difficult” leaders can have on a business.
In fact, he wrote the book on the topic, releasing Why do so many incompetent men become leaders? (And how to fix it) in 2019.
He says the main dangers of having an incompetent boss are organisational: wasted resources, bad decisions and risky or threatening actions that can cost companies.
For a boss’s direct reports, the impact is much more personal – their career.
“Incompetent bosses are not very good at gauging talent, developing others’ potential, or turning a group of people into a high-performing team,” he says.
This incompetence can be separated into two types: ethical and unethical. While ethical leaders tend to be well-meaning, they might lack the ability or expertise to make a positive impact. Unethical leaders, on the other hand, might be smart, technically qualified and socially adept – yet morally corrupt.
“Many bosses are narcissistic, psychopathic, passive aggressive, or just emotionally volatile – but we shouldn’t forget that some are just clueless or incapable of doing their job, even if they are decent human beings,” he says.
He agrees with Patel that one of the best pieces of advice HR practitioners can follow in these situations is to “learn to know, and even understand, your boss”.
Be strategic with feedback
Having “transparent, blanket policies for no-nonsense behaviour” is one way to keep leaders in check, says Patel. This means making it clear how colleagues should be treated, and setting out the ‘dos and don’ts’ of good behaviour.
“For example, in a sales organisation, you might say, ‘We value those people who bring in a high volume of sales, but at the same time we value people who share the secrets of getting the sales – those who share the knowledge and create a good work environment’.
“Highlight the softer issues, the behaviour and attitudes that are important, rather than just the performance angle.”
Implementing 360-degree feedback, which is taken into account during performance appraisals, also allows other employees to report on a boss’s behaviour – without it getting back to them.
By tapping into this feedback, HR practitioners can help leaders become more self-aware, and hopefully address some of their negative behaviours.
“If within your 360-degree feedback you have behavioural scales, those issues can be picked up during a performance appraisal by HR managers – particularly those who are trained in psychology or who have a psychology background – and used to help make them better managers,” says Patel.
Not all leaders
Managing up isn’t only required when ego is involved. It can also be necessary if you work with a particularly risk averse leader, or someone who is only a few weeks into the job. You need to get things done, but they’re dragging their heels. How do you manage it?
Again, it’s about understanding the causes of their behaviour, says Patel.
“That person might be risk averse because they think the company doesn’t have the right infrastructure in place, or the right resources in terms of people and their skills, to make that decision.
“So it’s important to find out why … That is something one does with line managers, operations managers and HR practitioners. It’s just like with personality disorders – discover the underlying reasons.”
* Name has been changed.
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