Almost all of us who have managed others over the years, have had to deal with a boss whose own management style and set of management  skills left something to be desired. Managing up — as it is called — is relatively easy when one’s boss has a skill set, style, and personality similar to our own. But how to manage up when our boss has a style, set of habits, or chronic lack of sound management judgment that inhibits and complicates our ability to do our jobs?

In this series of articles under the category “MANAGING POOR MANAGEMENT”, I will share what hard-won experience has taught me about coping with the less than ideal boss with whom we are sometimes required to cope.


Being undermined by your boss is sometimes deliberate; as in his or her excessive need for control in some area you just happened to venture into during the normal course of your job.  It can also be quite emotionally painful when it occurs in public, especially in front of your subordinates.  However, in my experience, acts that undermine your authority are more often the byproduct of either poor judgment or ingrained behavior patterns that send the wrong message to others.  Whatever the reason — and whatever the manifestation, outrageous or simply annoying — a consistent pattern of undermining your authority is something you must confront if you are to succeed as a manager.

The following are some suggested Rules of Engagement to help with this confrontation.

Do not accuse!  Statements like “why are you always trying to cut my legs out from under me?” or “if you really want to run my unit, why did you give me this job?” will almost certainly elicit the argument and adamant denials these accusations of mal intent beg.  In truth, the best one can do is guess at the motivation behind someone else’s behavior.  Whether your guess is right or wrong in these circumstances is irrelevant.  If you have read my earlier articles  on the “Strategic Triangle” approach to decision-making, you will recall that your ultimate intent in situations like this is “behavior modification”.   So best to get your conversation off on a more productive course.

To do this, start by describing the behavior you wish to modify.  While this is rarely easy and will often illicit a defensive response, persevere and be very factual and specific.  Describe specific situations in which the behavior occurs and the behavior itself.  Do not embellish or suggest motivation.  The more accurate your description, the more likely your boss will have to own it.

For Example: in our staff meetings when I make a comment, you often follow with a sarcastic remark, that from my perspective, suggests you do not take my comments seriously”; or “when my subordinates come to you complaining about a decision I have made, you do not routinely send them back to work the issue out with me”; or ” in the last few months, you have unilaterally reversed three decisions — enumerate them —  I had the authority to make without consulting with me”.

Finally, describe the consequences of that behavior as you believe they affect your ability to exercise the authority inherent in your position.  In the case of behavior that undermines your authority, you should have specific examples to discuss:

For Example:  colleagues or subordinates that are paying less attention to you; or subordinates who are unwilling to carry out your decisions after they have spoken to your boss.

The clearer the consequences of your boss’s behavior, the greater the chance some behavior modification will occur.  In the case of this bad management practice, it is to your advantage that there are few bosses who would passively accept her or his authority being undercut, if it were happening to them.

Managing poor management in all of its manifestations is always a challenge, because it means attempting to manage your boss or bosses.  Thus, as I have written elsewhere, it is critical that one asks — and honestly answers — the question “does it really matter”?  Does this act of bad management seriously affect my ability to do my job, or hinder the performance of the organization for which I am responsible?  If it does, then you must act to confront the issue as best you can, knowing you will not always succeed but that you at least went down on the right side of things.  If it does not really matter in any significant way, then save your powder for the engagements that really do.

Categories: Communicating Effectively, Managing & Leading, Managing Poor Management, Self-Management

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4 replies

  1. I enjoyed this article very much as it gave some good insights into my current situation of poor management. As I get older and have more work experiences, I am struck that the job is never the problem, it’s always the people. It is such a shame.

  2. I find it difficult to approach my manager as she is nice overall but I think she like to be in control and I am left uncertain. I have explained and on occasions she has re-directed the staff to me but there is no consistency in her approach. I end up trying to 2nd guess her to avoid contradictions, over checking before I do even little things. staff go to her as she is seen as the soft easy option, so I am often out of the loop and are seeing her as their line manager rather than me.

  3. I am a Supervisor External Security at Correctional Services. I have to manage working teams and see to it that they are in on time. What can I do with colleagues that are undermining my authority, especially a manager that doesn’t adhere to bring in his working team on time and is arrogant when approaching him!?

    • Stian…..I appreciate your comment and dilemma.

      In cases like yours, you must always assume some corrective behavior is possible. If not, why bother trying.

      The key issue in your and any similar situation is the consequences of the behavior in question. What are the negative effects that occur when he does not ensure his team arrives on time? There is some reason a timely arrival is important at a correctional facility and a late arrival frustrates that objective.

      Your conversation with him — ignore the arrogance — should emphasize the consequences. Tell him “this is why timely arrivals at this correctional facility are required and mandated as a matter of policy”. Then explain to him “when your team arrives late, these are the negative consequences that occur”. Here you are sharing facts he can not deny. If you can help him see it is about the importance of the policy and not about how you specifically feel, perhaps he will be able to adjust his behavior accordingly.

      In sum, do not make your conversation personal or about your authority. Make it about the arrival policy and why it is important.

      Situation-behavior-consequence discussions do not always succeed but they are still the best strategy to pursue in situations like yours.

      Good luck! Cheers. Terry

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