Managing Up: How to Manage More Than One Boss

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 3:22 PM EDT

Linda Hill of Harvard Business School is an authority on leadership and organizational behavior. She was a contributor to the HBS Press book Managing Up.

BNET: Why is it so difficult to "manage" up, a very important skill for one's career management?

Hill: What often happens when organizations try to implement global strategies is that you get these very complex, matrixed structures of reporting. People find they have more than one boss, because you can have a functional organization and a product organization and a geography cutting across everything. The issues I've been talking about with executives and managers these days don't deal with how you manage your career with one boss, but how you manage your career with multiple bosses. Some relationships are "dotted line" and some are more solid. I tell them, "Even if it is a dotted line relationship, act like it's solid." Don't assume there's just one person you need to respond to, because that's the person who handles your performance appraisals, your pay and whatever else. People are struggling with how to set their own priorities when they are in a matrix like this.

BNET: How does someone make sure they establish a solid, predictable and beneficial relationship with the people they report to?

Hill: Step into the shoes of your manager and make sure you look at the world from his or her perspective and ask yourself about their priorities and concerns. Sometimes we can forget that they are human and imperfect and a part of a confusing matrix themselves, so they have potentially lots of masters to answer to. It always pays, even if you have a really bad boss, to look at the world from that boss' perspective.

It's much better to be realistic about the quality of your relationships with these bosses rather than to be either naïve or cynical about the quality. Is there a sense of mutual trust and do you have mutual expectations? How much mutual influence is there? Be honest about all of these as opposed to being in denial. A lot of people deny things because it is hard to admit that you don't have a good relationship with someone with so much power over you. But you need to create the conditions for your own success; it's not the responsibility of the boss. So, to truly do that, you need to build a partnership with that boss. So, ask yourself, "If I am truly in partnership with this person, how would I treat him?" A lot of times, the answer to these questions entails you taking on more risk, making yourself more vulnerable relative to that person more than you might have initially been comfortable with. Unless you spell out all the things about your job that you don't know and where you need help, there's no way that busy boss is going to be able to help you.

When people have two bosses, sometimes they pick the one they get along with best and ignore what happens with the other one, but that is a very dangerous thing to do.

BNET: A big part of managing upward is communication flows. What are some rules on how to make sure the boss is getting what she needs but not being overloaded?

Hill: That's what I mean "step into the shoes of your boss." You need to figure out how much information your boss likes and in what form they like it. People really differ in this. If, in fact, their preferred mode of receiving information is very different than your strengths in providing it, then you two need to talk about this. If it's a person who wants too much information, sometimes we can develop the feeling that they don't trust us, where it might be that they just like to process lots of information themselves.

One of the problems we have nowadays, particularly in this kind of economy, is how you get your boss' attention for things that are really critical because they are so stretched and busy. Getting the boss' attention on the right priorities is really something you need to be proactive about. You need to be clear in your own mind about what is really key. When you make the time to see the boss, you start with these things to use your time wisely. Sometimes you need to build a coalition of peers who all give the same message to a boss and assure his or her attention on that matter.

People are reluctant to be proactive. In my research, many more than half of the people I talk to say they see their boss as a threat and not an ally in their development. Their bosses are really shocked by that because they think they are accessible and flexible. But people don't want to communicate issues proactively because they feel there is a "shoot the messenger" notion in their workplace.

We'll conclude our discussion with Professor Hill next week.

  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."