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.

But bear in mind, that 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 in these articles, it is critical that one asks — and honestly answers — the vital 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 energy for the engagements that really do.


To begin with, bear in mind that this form of bad management is a perception.  A manager does certain things — behaves in certain ways — and we choose to label that behavior as “PLAYING FAVORITES”.    This is not to say that our perception isn’t correct but we should not be surprised if that is not the way our boss sees — or might explain — her or his behavior.

In fact, only the worst sort of manager willfully and blatantly play favorites.  It is such a disrespectful display of disregard for the less favorite, that most managers will believe they have a perfectly reasonable and logical explanation for the behavior others may see as displays of “favoritism”.

Nevertheless, because of the potential consequences of “favoritism” on a work unit — and because one’s perception tends to become one’s reality in how we see and interact with a boss — we may need to confront the issue directly.  In my workshops for managers, we work several scenarios where a boss is confronted with claims from subordinates that he or she plays favorites.  Although workshop participants approach this difficult conversation in many ways, what I call “THE 4 DOs” always seem to emerge in the end.

1.  Do avoid, at all costs, confusing your perception with absolute fact.  Thus, never directly accuse the boss, or pretend that you can read her or his mind and intentions.  Accusations beg for strong defensive responses, fueled by strong emotion; not the best way to begin a constructive conversation.

2.  Rather, describe the behavior you have observed — the behavior you believe reflects favoritism — and provide specific examples.  However the boss may see these behaviors, well-chosen examples will be hard for her or him to deny.  Sticking to behavioral examples, provides an opportunity for an open-minded boss to look at things from an alternative perspective and consider how others might interpret their actions.

3.  Accompany your behavioral examples with descriptions of their impact on others whenever possible.  For example:

  • “At meetings I’ve noticed you tend to engage only the more senior folk in conversation.  Have you noticed how all the rest of us just seem to check out emotionally and mentally”?
  • “I’ve noticed you demonstrate considerable enthusiasm for the ideas surfaced by the men or women in our group but offer little affirmation when the opposite gender speaks up.  I believe you are missing out on a lot of good ideas and alternative ways of looking at things”.
  • “It’s my perception that almost all of the plum assignments seem to go to the same few people.  I believe this is preventing many of the rest of us from gaining the experience we need to grow and progress”.

Coupling observable consequence with behavior makes the case for your — and other’s — perception of potential favoritism that much stronger.

4.  Finally, when applicable, do not be afraid to ask specifically for what you want; the next plum assignment, more attention at meetings, more mentoring and coaching from the boss, etc.  In many cases, a personal desire is why a subordinate finally decides to confront the boss directly on this issue.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained if you have a legitimate request.

Like all conversations with a boss about a bad management practice, successful outcomes are never certain.  One is always banking on the ability of a boss to achieve an open-minded state, consider things from the perspective of others, and ultimately to modify her or his behavior.  Because doing all three things amounts to admitting that we humans occasionally get things wrong, it is rarely easy for any of us.  But bad management practices never challenged will continue unabated in most instances.

Categories: Exercising Responsibility, Self-Management

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 replies

  1. Very good article but drop the sexist remark at the beginning, “save your powder”. That kind of statement went out in the ’80’s.

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