Extra Edition / Business Management

Refuse to Be Undermanaged

October 4, 2010
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Bruce Tulgan

[Editor’s Note: This article is based on the book It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss (Wiley/Jossey Bass, 2010) by Bruce Tulgan]

In organizations across all industries and at all levels of organizations, there is a shocking and profound epidemic of what I call “undermanagement” - the opposite of micromanagement.

The vast majority of supervisory relationships between employees and their bosses lack the day-to-day engagement necessary to consistently maintain the very basics of management: clear expectations; necessary resources; real performance tracking; and fair credit and reward. In fact, most employees report that they feel disengaged from their immediate boss(es); that two-way communication is sorely deficient; and that employees rarely get the daily guidance, resources, feedback, and reward that they need.

Undermanagement makes the impact of micromanagement look like nothing:

• Unnecessary problems occur.

• Small problems (that could have been solved easily) turn into big problems.

• Resources are squandered.

• Employees perform tasks/responsibilities the wrong way for longer periods of time.

• Low performers hang around causing problems for everyone else (and collecting the same paycheck as everyone else, too).

• High performers get frustrated, lose commitment, and think about leaving.

• Employees are not set-up to perform at their best.

• Managers spend their management time in all the wrong ways.

You may not be aware of undermanagement in your workplace. But look around you. I bet undermanagement is costing you every single day. It robs you of having more positive experiences in the workplace and prevents you from reaching greater success. Undermanagement gets in the way of your learning and development, makes it harder for you to optimize relationships, and diminishes your opportunities for new tasks, responsibilities, and projects. Undermanagement very likely causes you to earn less than you should and prevents you from gaining more flexibility in your schedule and other work conditions.

So, who is responsible for this undermanagement epidemic? After all, isn’t it the manager’s job to manage? Shouldn’t the bosses be taking charge? Yes, I believe managing is a sacred responsibility. If there’s a problem, the boss is the solution. If you are the boss, you are the one everyone is counting on.

Unfortunately, too many leaders, managers, and supervisors are failing to lead, manage, and supervise. They simply do not take charge on a day-to-day basis. They fail to spell out expectations every step of the way, ensure necessary resources are in place, track performance, correct failure, and reward success. They don’t know how to, they don’t want to, or they are just afraid to.

What can you do about it?

If you are looking for guidance on how to manage your boss, there are zillions of so-called experts out there who will be happy to provide it. The problem is that so much of the advice about “managing up” or “managing your boss” out there doesn’t tell the whole story.

Some experts only offer advice for dealing with incompetent bosses or bullies - but they fail to see that, unless you’ve been managing your boss closely, then you don’t even know if you are dealing with an incompetent one or a bully. Other experts suggest you cater to your boss and follow him or her up the ladder - but this approach is stuck in the outmoded view that supervisory relationships are simple, fixed, long-term and hierarchical. Most supervisory relationships today are often complex, shifting, short-term, and transactional, so you have to be prepared to adapt to the many bosses you are likely to have over time and pursue your own career.

Other experts advocate manipulating your boss to meet your personal needs - but playing your boss to squeeze out as much benefit for you as you possibly can in exchange for the least effort on your part is self-serving, deceptive, and dishonorable. When you constantly take advantage of your boss, you are in a dead-end relationship.

Finally, some experts argue you should “partner” with your boss - but fail to acknowledge the importance of the power differential in a “boss-employee” relationship. Your boss is your boss precisely because he or she has authority, influence, and control of resources that directly affect you.

None of this advice offers you realistic tactics you can employ on a day to day basis to take responsibility for your role in every management relationship.

The reality is this: In order to be a high performer in today’s workplace, you need bosses who are strong and highly engaged. The only problem is that you are the only one you can control. You can only control your role and conduct in each relationship with each boss. That means, if you need your bosses to be strong and highly engaged, you will need to help them.

In my training seminars, all I do is teach frustrated individuals to copy the best practices of the most effective people out there in the real world. Based on everything we’ve learned from nearly 17 years of interviewing people and training managers and their employees, we have developed a catalogue of dozens of concrete tactics for real-world boss-managing and organized them into a step-by-step approach. That’s why I wrote the book It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss.

Here it is in a nutshell: I call these the seven steps back to the basics of managing your boss:

Step One. The first person you have to manage every day is yourself.

Step Two. Get in the habit of managing your boss every day.

Step Three. Take it one boss at a time, one day at a time.

Step Four. Get clear expectations from your boss every step of the way.

Step Five. Get your hands on the resources you need to succeed.

Step Six. Track your performance every step of the way.

Step Seven. Go the extra mile to earn credit and more rewards.

We know that the tactics work. If you start practicing these tactics with every boss consistently, you will quickly find yourself building highly successful relationships with every boss at work.

Publication date: 10/04/2010

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