July 25, 2016

This week is the beginning of Semester 2 at the University of Melbourne were I teach arts management. This semester, I’m sharing the teaching with two esteemed colleagues and so the students should get a richer experience than usual.

My U’s in the book are Uncertainty, Unions and Upward Management. In someways, Uncertainty should be the topic for this week because with the recent outrages in Nice, Munich and Kabul and the forthcoming US Presidential election, the world seems very insecure. But I’m going to remain optimistic and provide some insights into of those challenging work tasks – managing your boss.


There’s no guarantee that you will always have a good manager or a good leader. Adirondack (2005) has a great approach to management in the non-profit sector. She talks about ‘good enough management’ and provides a range of advice on dealing with ‘not-yet-good enough management’. It may be incompetent management. But it can also be about lack of direction form the Board, or poor processes such as badly run meetings, or unclear objective or expectations, or lack of good financial management. You can help provide advice and ideas to improve these scenarios even when you’re not the boss.

One of the regular whinges from students is about bosses who micromanage them. I’m lucky enough to have avoided such a relationship (to date) so for their sake, I went looking for some advice. Gallo (2013b) provides some useful strategies. The starting point is that it’s more likely to be about your bosses insecurities than it is about your competence.  And some micromanagement might be good for you. You may simply have a manager with very high standards who pays a great deal of attention to detail. Whilst they are exerting a degree of control, you can probably learn from them.

However, what students are generally talking about are the bosses who give you little independence, are obsessive about what you’re doing every minute of the day, don’t let you make decisions and seem incapable of focusing on the bigger picture. Gallo’s (2013b) advice is not to fight it but rather to try and understand what’s behind it – is it fear of failure, pressure, company culture, the only way they know how to be a boss? Understanding will help sort out which strategy is best to use to deal with it including  trying to earn your boss’s trust, making up-front agreements about their level of involvement in your work and providing regular and detailed updates about your  progress.

The other boss that regularly gets a mention is the one that’s simply incompetent – whether it’s because they can’t make a decision or because they play politics (or World of Warcraft) instead of doing work, or because they are focussed on their career not on helping you. Gallo (2013a) also offers insight on how to deal with this problem. Once again, it’s about trying to understand what causes it, asking others for help, finding creative ways of collaborating with them and stepping up and taking on responsibilities and decisions if they can’t or won’t. Her final point is the most important – take care of yourself.  If you find yourself with a manager that isn’t good enough, you can and should take it up with someone higher up, formally or informally, if that’s possible. As Adirondack (2005) suggests, you can do it in the spirit of asking for advice and guidance rather than complain.

But what if you feel that the relationship is all one way? That the management is not just ‘not yet good enough’ but actually bad. You’re doing their work for them; they take all your ideas and don’t give you credit; you can’t trust them; they can’t made a decision – or make bad decisions. You may decide to stay on and put up with a poor relationship because you love the organisation and hope that they will leave soon. But it’s important to remember that you won’t be able to make significant differences in how they think or operate (Hill & Lineback 2013). So you may have to do what I’ve done in the past and decide that working for such people is ultimately so demeaning and disappointing that it’s not worth staying. It’s traumatic and scary to leave but it’s better than working for a bad manager even in a good company.



Adirondack, S 2005, Just About Managing? 4th edn, London Voluntary Service Council, London

Gallo, A 2013a, ‘Dealing with your incompetent boss’ in HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 55-59

Gallo, A 2013b, ‘Stop Being Micromanaged’ in HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across,   Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 47-59

Hill, LA & Lineback, K 2013, ‘Managing your boss’ in HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, Harvard Business Review Press, Boston, 3-16