How to manage your boss when you dislike authority
I would never want to manage an employee like myself in my 20s. I resented following orders. I disliked it when my boss got to present my work instead of me. I often thought that I would prefer not to have a boss. I was a nightmare.
Early on, I could get away with it. I avoided much contact with my bosses and focused on being good at my job. I was lucky enough to have many managers who enjoyed my independence and were happy to delegate. I quickly rose through the ranks.
But, at some point, my disdain towards authority started having a toll on my career. I wasn’t hiding it as well as I thought I was. One manager told me off for unknowingly rolling my eyes whenever he assigned boring tasks to me. Another became hostile towards me as she felt threatened. I started being passed over for opportunities as I was not in my boss’s “inner circle.” I realized that it was impossible to continue my career progression unless I fixed my relationship with my superiors.
In the HBR article “Managing your Boss,” the authors call this resistance to authority counterdependent behavior. People with counterdependent behavior struggle with their superiors. Especially with authoritarian bosses or micromanagers. Paradoxically, they are great managers themselves. They support their teams and are willing to go out on a limb for them.
I never got to change my rebellious tendencies completely. I eventually became an entrepreneur. I love working for myself, and I have accepted this about me rather than trying to fight it.
But, I learned how to manage my relationship with my managers effectively before I became my own boss. I still treasure many of those relationships today. Eventually, managing upward became a source of strength and not a weakness. And all that without losing my authenticity or resorting to sleazy tactics.
In my work now, I often get to coach counterdependent leaders. In this article, I am sharing the tips that worked for my clients and me around managing your boss when you dislike authority.
Treat your boss like your clients
Your relationship with your boss is crucial — I learned this the hard way. Your boss controls raises and promotions, opportunities and projects, resources, and essential information. If you want to be an effective leader, you need to nurture your relationship with your boss, period.
Treat your boss as a client. Find out what she wants and what her goals are. Ask about her challenges and how you can support her. Invest in connecting with her on a personal level.
Also, ask about her preferred communication style. Peter Drucker divided bosses into listeners and readers. For listeners, you share an idea in person, and then you follow up with an email. For readers, you send an email first, and then you discuss it. This can make all the difference in getting your message across.
You also need to be sensitive about when it is appropriate to use your boss as a sounding board. You want to collaborate with a client but not offload your work to them.
My client, Bob, loved to clarify his thinking and bounce ideas with his boss. His boss, though, felt uncomfortable with this as she got the impression that Bob did not have a handle on things. She thought he depended on her to make decisions. While Bob was treating his boss as a coach, his boss assumed that Bob could not manage on his own.
I worked with Bob to identify a peer group within and outside the company to bounce ideas and clarify his thinking. This way, he would not need his boss for that purpose that often. He also made sure he had enough conversations with his boss, sharing achievements, and already baked ideas. He stopped only going to her when he needed help. And when he wanted to bounce some ideas with her, he made it clear that’s what he needed, and he was not offloading the decision to her. Those changes helped Bob’s boss regain her trust in him.
Get clarity on how your roles overlap
If you and your manager have frequent misunderstandings, a lack of clarity around your roles is the most likely cause.
I like having my clients do a RACI diagram with their bosses and direct reports. Here are the definitions I use when I brief them on RACI:
Responsible. What are the tasks that you are responsible for performing yourself?
Accountable. What are the tasks that you are accountable for? For those, you are the last one to review the task before it is deemed complete. You either perform them yourself or delegate. Only one person should be accountable for each task.
Consulted. What are the tasks you need to be consulted on based on either how it will impact your future work or based on your expertise?
Informed. What are the tasks that you need to be informed about? You need to be kept in the loop about progress rather than roped into the details of every deliverable and decision.
I have yet to meet a team that did not have some confusion over their RACI designation of tasks. Doing the chart with your boss will give you clarity about how to manage her.
You will know what she wants to do herself (R) so you do not mess with it. You will see where you need to get her approval (A), and you will avoid mistakes. You will also know when you need to ask for her opinion (C), but you can afford to ignore it if you do not agree. And finally, you will know when to keep her in the loop (I). She will also identify those things for you.
Manage your expectations.
The other side of counterdependence is overdependence and some people flip between the two. Overdependent employees have unrealistic expectations of their managers. They see them as all-wise parents who know everything, make no mistakes, and will protect them, train them, and boost their careers.
Gary complained to me about how disappointed he was with his manager. She was distant, never invited her team to her home, and did not care for them as much as he would like.
Gary had lost his mother at a young age. I wondered whether some of this frustration came from him projecting a maternal figure to his manager. He was disappointed when she did not live up to that expectation. Could he let go of the “nurturing” demands he had from her?
I often see unrealistic expectations projected to managers. No, your boss will not know everything you are doing or your achievements unless you tell her. She will not know everything you need from her, either. She is not a mind reader.
Make your boss look good
Some people misguidedly believe that if they make their boss look bad, they will benefit. They hope that their superiors will notice the “unfairness” of their predicament and give them their boss’s job. I have not seen this happening, not even once. What I have seen many times is people being seen as unprofessional and immature because they complain about their boss publicly.
If you disagree with your boss, work out your differences in your one-to-one meetings. Have frequent and honest discussions. Outside those, you will only gain if you help your boss shine.
Here, it is worth mentioning how you manage the relationship with your boss’s boss. Be transparent about it. Do not email your boss’s boss without copying your boss, for example. Let your boss know when you have a meeting with her boss. Keep her in the loop of what was discussed.
Learn from your boss’s strengths
One of my clients, Mary, struggled with her boss. She spent a lot of time criticizing what he did wrong. According to her, he was lazy with a lousy work ethic. He was free-riding on other people’s work and misleading his superiors about his abilities.
I asked her to share what her manager was good at. She thought for a while, and she realized that he was charismatic and good with people. I asked her to see what she could learn from him. Indeed, in the next coaching session, Mary reported that she benefited from the exercise. She had already adopted his more relaxed and informal style in some of her meetings with great success.
She also learned from him how to handle conflict effectively. Even when he had a different opinion, he would say things like “I hear what you are saying,” to acknowledge the other person. This was an easy practical change that Mary adopted.
Once Mary’s mindset shifted from criticizing her boss’s laziness to learning from his strengths, their relationship improved ten-fold. She did not believe he was so bad anymore; she could see his contribution even though it did not come with the sweat she expected. Her manager also felt the increased acknowledgment coming from Mary. He did more things to support her.
By focusing on what you can learn from your boss, you will tame the resistance you have towards having a superior who has apparent weaknesses. And, they will notice.
If you dislike authority, you might end up becoming an entrepreneur and not having a boss at all. But, until then, it is worth making the most out of the relationship with your managers. Do not let your resistance to authority sidetrack your career and your growth.
Work on your relationship with your manager and earn her trust. Treat her like a client. Get clarity on your roles and responsibilities. Make her look good. Accept she is human and imperfect and learn from her strengths.
In your journey towards managing upward effectively, you will grow up. You will stop being a rebellious, submissive, or needy child when you are at work and start being an adult. This will help you develop both professionally and personally.
Download my “13 Free Ways To Motivate Your Employees Right Now” guide here. Details and names of clients have been changed to protect their anonymity.