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Episode 125: “How to Manage Your Manager” with Mary Abbajay

In this episode Mary Abbajay teaches us “How to Manage Your Manager”.

Mary is president of Career Stone Group LLC, a full-service organizational and leadership development consultancy that delivers talent and organizational development solutions to business and government. Her work and advice have appeared in the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, the Financial Times and she is the author of the best-selling book “Managing Up – how to move up, win at work, and succeed with any type of boss”.


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Highlights from Episode 125: “How to Manage Your Manager” with Mary Abbajay

How to Manage Your Manager

Tell us a little bit about how you got into writing, lecturing, and training all about leadership.

Well, thanks for having me on the show. So, I’m really passionate about people having really great workplace experiences. Most of us spend a good portion of our waking hours at work. I really want those hours to be good hours and not bad hours. For 20 years I’ve been working with teams, organizations, and leaders. I kept hearing people complain about their bosses all the time, complaining about their managers and the managers complain about their employees all the time. And I’m thinking “People, we should just talk it out.”

Let’s figure out how to work well with each other because you’re not going to change the other person and so about, I don’t know, ten years ago, my team and I created a workshop on managing up. Like, how to figure it out, how to manage the relationship with your manager, and then from that came the book. A publisher approached me and asked me about writing a book and I said “Giddy-up! This is going to be great” and there are millions and gazillions of books on how to be a great manager or leader. Clearly, no one’s reading them because there’s a lot of bad managers out there. But I thought there could be some more, there’s a lot of room for someone to talk to to help people learn to navigate the boss that they actually have, not the boss they wish they had.

So, tell us a little about some of your kind of typical manager types and how I, as a worker, can manage up.

Well, first I want you to know that “Managing Up” is about managing the relationship, right? It’s not about being sick of licking someone’s boots or being a patsy, right? It’s about managing that relationship with the boss, no matter what type of boss you have. So that you can be successful, they can be successful and the organization can be successful. So, people come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, all kinds of flavors. So, you might have bosses that are really easy to work with, that are really easy for you to work with, right?

I call those the unicorn bosses. So, there’s not a lot you need to do when you’re completely in sync. But you might have a boss who might be a nit-picker maybe or a micromanager or an impulsive or what I call the ghost boss, and this doesn’t necessarily make them a bad person, but it might make them a bad manager for you. So, these are the kinds of bosses that you need to figure out how to navigate. Because you’re not going to change who they are, are you? You can only change how you choose to interact with them.

What kind of nuggets you can give us, maybe two or three elements of the relationship that people can change to get things kind of going a little bit more their way?

So, what we have to realize is that you know, we’re not changing ourselves, we’re not changing them. We might change how we interact with them a little bit. So, there are three basic things you need to be able to do to manage up. One is that you have to pay attention to how your boss operates, how he, she or they, what are their preferences? What are their work styles? How do they communicate? How much information do they like? What is most important to them, their priorities, their preferences, their perspectives, their pet peeves. Get a really good sense of who they are, how they operate, what’s important to them.

By the way, you don’t have to agree with that. You may not even like it. It could even be wrong. So, try to learn who they are without judging them first. People can just be different. Then you have to take a good look at who you are. How do you operate? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? How do you show up at work? Don’t judge yourself, either. But also, be honest with yourself about how you’re really showing up. And then you get to look at the gap and you would get to assess. How are you alike? How are you different? Where is it working? Where is it not working? And that’s where really the power of your adaptability comes in. And what ways are you willing to adapt a little bit, maybe interact a little bit differently, then you normally do, in order to build that close gap with your boss? You know, for example, something simple like an introvert and an extrovert.

So, let’s say that your boss is a really big introvert which means they may not be showing up a lot. They may not be communicating a lot. They may not feel warm and fuzzy. And let’s say you’re an extrovert. So, you like to interact and you like the dialogue, you like to brainstorm. Instead of complaining that your boss doesn’t share information with you or doesn’t meet with you, you need to think about “What can I do to build that relationship? Maybe I’m going to be proactive and schedule meetings with my boss and get on their calendar. Maybe I’m going to, instead of waiting for information, maybe I’m going to ask them questions, like pull the information out, instead of assuming that they don’t care about me. I’m going to take the driver’s seat and really build that relationship better with them.” So, that’s really what we’re talking about. Finding ways to actually navigate the person that your boss really is, not who you wish they were.

If you just don’t get along really well with your manager but other people do, so, then what can you do about that working relationship?

I love that question because I get that complaint a lot. Well, so and so, gets on with her and this person just doesn’t like me. So, first of all, that person actually may not like you so that’s always the possibility, let’s be honest. Not everybody will love you and we will not always be everybody’s cup of tea, but look to see how the person that does work well with your boss, look to see how they navigate them. Look to see how they communicate with them. Look to see if that person understands what your boss is really after. So often we resist what is, stop resisting what is, and figure out how to make it work. I’ll give you an example. We’ve all been micromanaged before, right? People can’t stand a micromanager.

But instead of it getting all angry about the micromanager which, by the way, I can get, because that’s no fun. No one likes that, it’s not right. But micromanagers need some information. They need extra control. They need extra inclusion. So, you could complain all day long about that boss or you know, what else you could do? You could be proactive and load them with information, give them the stuff they need before they ask for it, be prepared for their involvement, check in with them before you start a project, find out what they want. If a micromanager comes to you and says “Where is this thing?” you haven’t been communicating enough.

And here’s the thing: Everybody gets really worked up about this. Well, that’s not fair. That’s not right. And I get that and you’re not going to change that person. So, you can either sit around and complain about how that’s not right or you can put a little extra effort in and give that person what they want. And usually, once the micromanager has built enough trust with you, you’ve given them enough certainty, then they will give you your autonomy. So, stop resisting what is, you’re not going to like it, but it works. Load them with the information.

The converse of that, the boss, the manager, that you could never find, you can never get hold of, you can never get the stamp of approval, or just pass it on, or whatever it is. Tell us about those guys and gals.

I like all those folks, the ghosts, right? So, those are the bosses that give you a project or they sign yourself a thing and poof! They disappear. And you can never find them. They’re never around. So, here’s the thing with the ghost – they are who they are. And by the way, people ghost for lots of reasons, sometimes they ghost because they’re an introvert. Sometimes because they’re just too busy. They may want to be there for you, but they can’t or sometimes quite frankly they ghost because they may be, as we say in America, a little retired in place, right?

But whatever the reason, you’re going to be proactive about getting what you need from them. So, three quick things for the ghost. One is to make sure you are scheduling check-ins to get critical input on the most important projects, right? Just because they ghost you, doesn’t mean you get to ghost them. So, schedule regular meetings. Two – you are going to really have to do what we call “Figure it out”. We actually call it something else with a foul word, but you’re going to have to figure things out on your own which means going to other colleagues, getting a lot of advice, building your network. Quite frankly, it could be a really great opportunity for people who like to be autonomous.

And the third thing you want to do is when you do get their time when you do get those 15 minutes, that critical check-in, be succinct, be prepared to go in with your highest priority items, get those checked off, and then get out. A lot of times we manage others how we want to be managed. So, to be, all in transparency, my team calls me a ghost boss because I don’t ever want to micromanage anybody. And I also have too much on my plate most of the time, but don’t assume that your ghost boss doesn’t care about you because you are absolutely right, they may be ghosting because they’re so afraid of being such a micromanager. Assume positive intent.

How does the “ghost manager” differ from the seagull boss?

The seagull boss is one of my favorite bosses to talk about. So, seagulls are bosses that fly around and there are two kinds of seagulls, they either swoop and poop, or they swoop and scoop. So, the “swooper and pooper” will, you know, fly around and suddenly they dive into a project, or into a meeting and they just poop all over it. They just like cause chaos and disruption or you know conflict and then they just leave, right? And then you’re left with the mess. The seagull that scoops, swoops in, sees a project. He says “Oh, I like that project!” and they take it away from you and they take it on their own.

So, seagulls are whole another sort of thing to deal with. So, if you have a “swooper and pooper” and you know this about your boss or your manager, you’re just going to have to learn not to, this is going to sound awful, but you’re going to learn not to take it personally, be prepared for the swooping in the pooping, be prepared for the chaos. This works really well when you have a team that you can, kind of, be ready, prepare yourself for how you’re going to manage and handle this. Don’t take it too much to heart like see if you can’t pick a part of the feedback or what’s helpful and disregard the rest. It’s not easy. It’s not fun. But it is what you can do and they do that.

Those that scoop it away from you. That’s really hard. Like you’ve worked hard on this project. It’s important to you and suddenly your boss is going to take it away. So, a couple of reasons why they do this, but first of all, pay attention to when they do this. Oftentimes a boss that’s swoops and scoops didn’t realize that the project was going to be so highly visible or important or cool or new. So, keeping your boss a part of your projects, especially the kind that they tend to scoop can be really helpful, like really keeping them incorporated, so hopefully, they won’t feel the need to totally scoop it because they already feel involved.

What about the organization? What kind of responsibility should the organization take in managing my manager who is difficult?

Until organizations actually put a value on how managers are treating their people, how managers are managing their people part, not a lot, it is kind of going to be a crapshoot if you will. Let’s remember how most people get promoted. Most people have got promoted because they’re good at their technical job. They’re good salespeople. They’re good engineers. They are good coders. So, we put them into management without really knowing that they’re going to be good at the people side. And then organizations don’t train people how to be good managers. And then, worst of all, they don’t often hold that people part of the equation hold people accountable for it.

They’re still measured on the business line results. And so, until organizations actually understand and can connect the business dollars and they are easily provable how a good engaging manager that develops and cares those people, actually is good for the bottom line. Until organizations start holding managers accountable for employee engagement, for good culture, for morale, and for the positivity in the organization, it’s going to be really dependent on whether or not a manager decides to bring that him or herself. So, organizations have a huge role in this and if they did a better job of it, I wouldn’t have needed to write this book (“Managing Up“) !

Show Notes

Mary’s book “Managing Up” goes into more detail on how to manage your manager.
Follow Mary on Twitter.
Connect with Mary on Linkedin.
Check out our other posts featuring Project Management Tips.

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