Jayashantha Jayawardhana knows how to handle the boss!

According to management hierarchy, your boss usually manages you; it’s not the other way around. But in a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter built a cogent case for managing one’s boss, which is the process of consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss and the company.

Some managers may not need the insights and skills in this article. But there are many managers who actively and effectively supervise subordinates, products, markets and technologies, and assume an almost passive stance towards their boss. These insights should help them.

Gabarro and Kotter cite the case of Frank Gibbons who was a recognised manufacturing wizard in his industry and an effective executive by any standard of profitability. His remarkable competencies saw him promoted to the position of VP of manufacturing for the second largest and most profitable company in the industry.

But it was a known fact that Gibbons wasn’t good at managing people. Aware of this and to offset his incompetency, the company’s president made sure that Gibbons’ managers were all good at it.

Philip Bonnevie, who was promoted as a direct report to Gibbons, possessed a spectacular track record and was equally adept at managing people. But unlike Gibbons, Bonnevie’s former bosses had been more people oriented so he wasn’t accustomed to managing a relationship with a difficult boss.

Only 14 months after he started working with Gibbons, Bonnevie was fired; and in the same quarter, the company posted a net loss for the first time in seven years.

So what had happened?

As they planned to launch a new product – one that was of paramount importance to the company – a series of misunderstandings and ill will erupted between them. The new product was a flop and they blamed each other for the failure.

Gibbons’ poor people management skills were well-known and he had never had such problems with any of his subordinates. What really happened was that Bonnevie hadn’t put in enough effort to manage his relationship with Gibbons. As a result, the company lost millions of dollars and Bonnevie’s career was disrupted, at least temporarily.

It doesn’t pay to dismiss a case like this merely as a personality conflict. Even if a personality conflict is involved here, it’s insignificant.

In managing your boss, the first thing to understand is that he or she – like everyone else – is imperfect and fallible. Bosses don’t have unlimited time, encyclopaedic knowledge or extrasensory perception; nor are they evil enemies.

You must realise that both you and your boss are two fallible beings who are mutually dependent, and whose corporate fates are often intertwined.

If you wish to manage your relationship with your boss properly, there are two forms of destructive behaviour to avoid. Whenever a disagreement arises, some managers (by default) resent their boss’ authority and rebel against his or her decisions. This escalates conflict to an inappropriate level. In psychology, this behaviour is termed ‘counterdependent behaviour.’

At the other end are the managers who passively comply with their boss’ decisions even when they know better and are in a position to convince the boss to correct his or her course. This is termed ‘overdependent behaviour.’

Gabarro and Kotter prescribe a checklist for managing your boss. First make sure you understand your boss and his or her context, including goals and objectives, work pressures, strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. You have to formulate a plan to leverage your boss’ strengths and compensate for his or her weaknesses, as well as preferred work style.

You also have to assess yourself and your needs, including your strengths and weaknesses. And you need to be honest with yourself to make an objective self-assessment of your preferred work style – e.g. whether you are a formal and methodical executive, or informal and intuitive. You will then need to adjust your work style to be compatible with that of your boss or reach some mutually convenient agreement on how to work together. And you may also have to change your predisposition to authority.

It’s necessary that you ensure your boss’ needs and styles aren’t at odds with yours, and that both of you have an understanding of each other’s expectations. You should not withhold any important information from your boss, you must be both honest and dependable, and try to use your boss’ time and resources selectively when required.

The ability to ‘manage upward’ doesn’t come as second nature to many executives. But it’s a set of technical skills and emotional competencies that you can teach yourself. Do it right and you’ll reap rewards galore… for you, your boss and the company.