Managing Your Supervisor

This article was written by Logan Harper, community manager for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Government’s online MPA programs. For more information on public administration degrees follow MPA@UNC on Twitter at @MPAatUNC.

It wouldn’t be called work if it were easy. No matter the work environment, occasional conflict is seemingly inevitable—particularly with your supervisor.

Whether you have the stereotypical difficult boss or a supervisor who’s worn too thin or uncommunicative, your circumstances can be improved. However, it is you who must take the first steps. Through rational and well-timed action you can ‘manage your manager.’

‘Managing Your Manager’ isn’t about manipulation, or pulling puppet strings. Nor is it about maneuvering or brown-nosing. To manage your manager, you must have empathy: remove your ego and maintain conscious rationality. You can effectively communicate and take proactive steps that will lead to the best results for you, your boss and the organization writ large.

When confronted with the difficult boss, first, take a breath and a moment to try to understand what objective reasons might there be for your boss’ difficult behavior. Ask yourself if they’re like this normally? Is their recent behavior possibly due to an increased workload or some other additional stress? If so, then it’s likely their behavior can be modified. However, if their negative behavior is chronic and habitual in abuse and hostility, it is less likely that a positive turn of events can be achieved. In such a case, consider seeking counsel from either a trusted mentor or human resources professional.

After you’ve assessed why your boss might be difficult, be sure to review your own negative emotions regarding their behavior so that you do not engage in self-defeating behavior. Do not negatively counter attack.

Once you have gained understanding and clarity regarding your boss’ possible reasoning and your own negative emotions, you may work to communicate your concerns within a positive framework that is neither adversary nor confrontational.

If you are being criticized, first, listen to your manager’s comments in full so you can respond most effectively and in entirety. Maintain your patience. Try to see the criticism not as a personal attack but as valuable information on how you and your work performance can improve. If you feel that you have been unfairly criticized, do not confront but rather discuss your concerns. As in any relationship, try to handle honest complaints in a manner that strengthens your relationship rather than damaging it.

You can empower yourself and mitigate such moments of criticism by encouraging candid, timely and consistent communications to and from management on the status of their career with the organization. Employees who are empowered with more information and responsibility regarding their place within the organization are able to better cope with work stress and better understand their relationship with management.

Beyond ‘difficult bosses’, it is always to your benefit to anticipate the needs of management. This can be quite a difficult task, but can be achieved through active listening and taking note of how your knowledge and skills can add value.

Seek out other interests and responsibilities within your organization and discuss these interests with your boss. Being fully prepared when called upon, you will not only cultivate a more positive relationship with your manager, but also demonstrate how invaluable you are and worthy of taking on an increased role.

Remember, the manager-employee relationship is one of mutual dependence. By understanding and anticipating how you can best supplement your boss’ strengths, weaknesses, priorities and work style, you will create a more favorable present and future for your career.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

This is a hard lesson to learn, but critical:

If you are being criticized, first, listen to your manager’s comments in full so you can respond most effectively and in entirety. Maintain your patience. Try to see the criticism not as a personal attack but as valuable information on how you and your work performance can improve.”

We all have blind spots and our egos get in the way of allowing us to receive what others are telling us about ourselves. But the moment we can appreciate the fact that someone is being honest with us and that they have our best interests in mind, the more we can sieze the opportunity grow professionally and personally.

Great post, Logan. Thanks for covering this topic!

Martha Austin

It’s always challenging to work for “that guy (or gal).” I love that you remind us that the difficult boss is also a human being. I frequently note that our organizations keep putting out vacancy notices for supervisors and these darn humans keep applying. I’m confident that none of those bosses got up in the morning intending to be a jerk. As we get inside our respective organizations it can be easy to allow ourselves to get sucked into the bureaucratic vortex, head down, pushing on, and we lose contact with the things that matter most. That loss of contact is often what leads to “jerkism” in our bosses and sometimes ourselves. Thanks for reminding us!

Martha Austin

Leadership Engineer


Doug Tharp

Good suggestions in the last few paragraphs – I think it is everyone’s responsibility to build relationships and by taking a pro-active approach to your work, this should ease the burden from and build confidence in your supervisor. Of course, if he’s really just a jerk, he’ll think you’re trying to do his job and may still be difficult to deal with. But I’d rather have someone upset with me because I know too much or work too hard than for any other reason.