How To Get Your Manager To Actually Manage You

Emotional Vampires At WorkGene isn’t a real manger; he just plays one on television.

At least that’s how it seems to Gwen.   Gene looks like a manager and talks like a manager, but he doesn’t actually manage.  He glosses over details and avoids tough decisions, preferring instead to rely on magic to run his department.  Gene believes that if his team is motivated enough, problems will just disappear.  In lieu of art, he plasters the walls with photos of sweaty athletes and soaring eagles.  Meetings are for pep talks, not going over the play book.  There is no play book.

After the pep talk, Gwen and the rest of team have to figure out how to do everything better, faster, more cheaply, and with higher quality.  Gene never sets priorities because everything is always job one when you have fire in your belly.

Gwen has fire in her belly, but it feels more like heartburn.  She’s not the only one who feels this way.  Middle management in many organizations is full of wannabes like Gene, who got where they are by acting motivated and enthusiastic, and stay there by seeing that nobody rocks the boat.

To get these manger wannabes to actually manage for a change requires some careful stagecraft and a clearer idea than they have about what management is and how it’s done. Is it fair that you have to be the one who gets your manager to manage?  All I can say is that it’s better than heartburn.  If you’re up for the task, here are some suggestions:

  • Know Your Goal – First, you need to know what it is you want your manager wannabe to do, and adjust your behavior accordingly.
  • Real management, the kind managers like Gene are most likely to avoid, involves balancing opposing demands like speed versus accuracy, and quality versus quantity.  This is done by setting priorities and sticking with them.  This is what you want to encourage your manager wannabe to do.
  • Step into Their World – In order to effectively influence other people, you have to understand their world view, not force them to understand yours.  The world that many manager wannabes live in looks a lot like high school.  Back then, popularity and social skills were just as important as actual performance.  While you were trying to learn calculus, your manager was sucking up to teachers by being deferent and enthusiastic in class discussions.  If you want your manager wannabe like Gene to listen to you, you have to treat him like he treated his high school teachers.  This is not a bad strategy for treating anyone in authority.
  • Write Your Manager a Heroic Role – To get people to perform well, be they bosses or subordinates, you have to play to their strengths.   Manager wannabes are first and foremost actors, but the roles they invent for themselves are rather thin.  You can do better if you put your mind to it.  What you want is a metaphor that a manager like Gene will take literally.  An excellent choice is shepherd watching over his flock.  If you’re looking for metaphors, you might as well go all the way to the top.

To see what Gwen might do, let’s go to the team meeting just after Gene’s pep talk about how to deal with changes in the reporting system:

Gwen raises her hand, and Gene points to her.  Just like in high school.   “Those are some great ideas!” she says.  “The other day, I was reading an article in Fortune about leaders as servants.  Does that relate to what you were saying?”  

“Sure does!” Gene says, and he launches into an explanation.  What he says doesn’t much matter, because Gwen’s purpose is to connect these two admirable concepts in Gene’s mind, and set him up for a third.   

“Oh, I get it,” she says.  “A leader as servant is like a shepherd watching over his flock.”

Yes, what Gwen is doing is blatantly manipulative.  One of the assumptions you have to let go of if you are to survive in the corporate world is that manipulation is bad.

Manipulation itself is neutral.  Moral judgments apply only to the way manipulation is used.  We all manipulate people all the time.  Some of us are better at it than others.  Some of us are even good enough to go pro.  Like all therapists, I get paid for manipulating people.

  • Write a Role for Yourself — If Gene is a shepherd, Gwen needs to play the little lost lamb.

Later in the meeting, Gwen shakes her head, but she continues to smile, showing that her heart is still in the right place.  “Gene, all the system changes we’re facing are so confusing.  There are so many choices.  I really want to do the right thing, but I just can’t figure out what to do first.”

Do you see where this is heading?  Gene will undoubtedly respond first with platitudes.  Gwen will of course listen and nod, as if they made sense.  Then, she will ask the real question:

“What would you do if you were me?”

Gwen is leading Gene toward coming up with a rank order of priorities, but she is getting him to do it as her rather than as himself.  In this way, according to Gene’s high school logic, any mistakes will be hers not his.

Asking a manager wannabe to understand you is a waste of time.  Asking one to play you often yields a totally different response.  This is what acting is all about.  Don’t ask how it works, just use it.

Gwen and the other members of her team can ask Gene to play each of them in turn, thereby yielding the priorities they need to do their job.  All they need to do is write them down as goals and objectives.  Some subtlety is needed, but not so much as you might think.

So far, so good.  The final act of this little drama is designed to make it more likely that Gene will defend the priorities he’s been tricked into setting when he’s questioned about them by his boss.

Gwen continues her own performance by helping Gene to write a script for his.  “So, we’re all in agreement that this changeover is so important that we need to be as careful as possible.  No rushing through it.  What will they say upstairs if you tell them it’s going to take longer and maybe even set us back a little?  Will they think the product is worth the wait and the expense?  Do they really believe that quality is job one?”

“Of course they do,” Gene says.  “They say it all the time.”

“Excellent!”  Gwen says.  “We can put all this together on a PowerPoint so you can present it.”

Preposterous as this scenario may seem, I can tell you based on years of experience that tactics like this work better far better than more direct and businesslike approaches.  I can’t guarantee that everything will go according to the script I’ve written here.   The words may vary, but the basic idea, transparent as it may be, will work surprisingly well.  Try it and see.

One final word on this matter:  Take a tip from Gwen.  When your boss is going to present your case to his or her superiors, always make the slides yourself if you possibly can.  Your boss will be happy to let you do the work, and believe me, that work is worth doing.

Be safe; be well; be at peace,

Please NOTE:  Albert J. Bernstein PhD is a Clinical Psychologist, Speaker and Business Consultant, and author of Emotional Vampires At Work, which can be purchased here.  He is guest blogging Dr. K’s blog while Dr. K takes a blogging sabbatical.

Leave a Reply