Govie Asks: How to Manage Up with a Poor Performing Boss?

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This topic contains 11 replies, has 11 voices, and was last updated by  David B. Grinberg 7 years, 9 months ago.

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  • #168795

    Steve Ressler

    I got another good question this week that a GovLooper wanted me to ask anonymously for them (shoot me an email – [email protected] if have the same)

    I’d like some help on the topic of managing upward. There are plenty of articles about dealing with a poor performer, but what what if that poor performer is your boss?

    How can you stay engaged and motivated when you can literally hear your boss snoozing, they miss meetings, and shoot down your ideas but then take credit for them with the leadership? It is to the point where bosses blow off the things that suck and just say ‘in x amount of years I’ll be retired and this will be all yours…’. Its like taking pride in knowing you’ll leave someone with a pile of junk. Not. Motivating.

    Question – How do I stay motivated? How should I manage up? I’ve tried looking for details but those have already been denied

  • #168817

    David B. Grinberg

    A few thoughts:

    1) Stay motivated by your own actions, not those of others — even your supervisor/manager. Maintain a positive attitude, always be polite and professional, and let your work speak for itself.

    I had a career manager once who was coasting toward retirement and a disengaged at times. However, he empowered me to do the high profile work to which he remained indifferent — which eventually resulted in a grade level promotion for me.

    Thus, having a disengaed and/or indifferent manager sometimes may be a blessing in diguise. It can free you up to work at a higher level and shine within the organizational leadership. It shouldn’t really matter if the manager takes false credit for your accomplishments and/or that of the team because, ultimately, your co-workers and agency leaders are smart enough to recognize who’s really doing all the outstanding work. In that case, leadership may even bypass the manager and go directly to you — which is another opportunity to manage up.

    2) I’ve found that the best time to “manage up” is immediatley when a new supervisor or manager takes the helm of your office. Usually, the new manager is like a fish out of water in terms of knowing the ins and outs of your organizational structure, culture, and even specific issues (especially if the person is a political appointee). This is your chance to bond with the new manager by educating him/her about how things really work and getting her/him up-to-speed on hot-button issues, etc.

    Thus, in essence, try to embrace and take ownership of the situation as an opportunity. If you play your cards right, the new manager will not only appreciate all your selfless assistance and diligent work, but then turn to you as the go-to staffer for advice and guidance — which let’s one manage up — at least until the manager becomes comfortably situated within the agency (which may take a few months).

    As Albert Einstein once said, in the middle of hardship and challenge lies opportunity (paraphrasing).

  • #168815


    Bad managers are a systemic problem in government. Some are so bad that the only approach is to file grievances and complaints.

    This is really a last resort as the bureaucratic processes and HR/legal departments make this a very difficult path.

    However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

    There is a newly formed Anti-Bullying Congressional Caucus headed up by Mike Honda (D-CA), and quite a bit of pro- “healthy workplace” sentiment around the world right now.

    More info can be found on my personal blog. Please share freely.

  • #168813

    Robin Sweet

    I was in this situation with my previous employer through multiple supervisors. In addition to your list, I had been told to stop working so hard/fast/etc. The toughest thing is to self motivate in these situations; however, that is exactly what I did. I would not change nor compromise my work ethic and took pride in the work product no matter whose name was on it. Just as David notes, those around know who is doing what work.

    I also feel that I learned quite a bit about how to not be a manager from many of those supervisors and team leaders. I am careful now not to do the same to my team.

    The cliche – take your lemons and make lemonade – may apply here.

  • #168811

    Debbie Hopkins

    I hate to be so simple, but there’s truth in realizing it’s probably a temporary situation. Sometimes you have to put your head down, get the job done and hope for the best!

  • #168809

    Mark Hammer

    The question is posed as if the individual has to deal with this entirely on their own. Many organizations have ombudsmen, or employee assistance programs for dealing with personal issues. It is also the case that federal organizations are required to conduct annual employee surveys, where such difficulties are presumed to come to light.

    Of course, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the matter WILL show up in survey data, that the breakout of results will be granular enough to show up that unit and supervisor as problematic, that anyone in senior management will care, or even that any organizational ombudsman or assistance program is situated where you work. So….

    There is certainly an art to bringing such matters to light in a nonconfrontational way. Some years back I was teaching community college and was required to teach a sort of everythng-you-need-to-know-from-psychology-to-survive-in-the-workplace to a rather oddball combination of computer science and secretarial studies students. One of the required modules in the curriculum I was handed was on harassment in the workplace. Because I knew that few ever make it through their working lives without ever encountering it or witnessing a co-worker grappling with it, as an exercise I had the students write a letter to their imaginary supervisor, in the personna of the protagonist in a scenario lifted from this rather excellent book: The book covers a gamut of real workplace harassment situations, from overt examples of clearly illegal behaviour, to benign-but-irritating events, and all points in between. The case I selected involved a relatively new female employee whose sales were being usurped/stolen by a long-time male co-worker who resented her, assumed that women had no place in sales, and exploited her willingness to not rock the boat. In the face of his interference, her job performance, both real and visible, was sinking like a stone.

    Some of the students, mainly the more mature ones, were able to recognize the unavoidable reality of loyalties and alliances in the workplace, and carefully present the obstacles to organizational performance created by the behaviour of the harasser, without being divisive, or asking management to take sides. Indeed, the more artful never even mentioned the word “harass”. The younger students, with less workplace experience, came out with both guns blazing in their letter, complaining about harassment from the first or second sentence in. The immediate impression, upon reading the letters, was that the former would engage the manager in reaching a productive and amicable solution to retain two good salespersons, whilst the latter would easily put the manager in the offender’s corner and question the judgment and motives of the complainant.

    I mention this to illustrate how the solution can sometimes lie in approaching those in authority, but the nature of the approach has to avoid classifying people into heroes and villains. While not a “pure” instance of whistleblowing, it nonethless encounters many of the same workplace challenges that whistleblowers encounter, namely the manner in which it can unintentionally force people to take sides – something people just don’t like to do. Note as well, that depicting the supervisor as a “poor performer” ends up branding those who selected that supervisor in the first place as bad judges of character; something they will not take kindly to.

    That’s why I say, even IF the supervisor in question is a lazy unprincipled jerk that was (and remains) in the words of one of my colleagues at DHS a “thirty year mistake”, the matter must be broached as a question of organizational rather than individual performance if the intent is to summon the collective will of those who can fix it.

  • #168807

    Don Jacobson

    If there is hope of getting the manager to engage, direct feedback that describes the behavior and its impact in a non-threatening way would be a good start. However, that is not likely to be successful unless you have a positive/constructive relationship with your boss that would make him care about what you are saying. The book The Courageous Follower by Ira Chaleff is the best resource for preparing for this approach.

    If there is no hope of getting the boss engaged, it’s useful to remember that nature abhors a vacuum. Fill it! (In a tactful way, of course.) Leadership is a choice. Your boss has not chosen to lead, but someone needs to.



  • #168805

    If your boss is really a poor performer who doesn’t value you or care about your contribution, they are unlikely to change.

    Option 1 – Wait it out – meanwhile, network laterally, join a project group, etc.

    Option 2 – Transfer – could be the result of #1

    Option 3 – Find a job somewhere else

    Sorry, tough situation.

  • #168803

    Dave Bell

    To stay self-motivated, just look at yourself in the mirror every morning and think about how blessed you are that you don’t have one of those jobs that Mike Rowe highlights. Think about all the blessings you have and how you are influencing the lives of coworkers and taxpayers.

    As for managing up, that is so highly dependent on the problem boss that it is neigh impossible to answer. There are a lot of good leadership books on the market and I have found some comfort by reading them and trying some things.

    If the boss is a political appointee, just bide your time. The election is looming.

    If the boss is a career, the only viable answer is bid on new positions and be willing to move to a new location. You can bid on a lateral positions as well as promotions. Sometimes your sanity is worth the trouble and expense.

    Good luck. I know it is not easy.


  • #168801

    Steve Ressler

    Thanks for all the awesome answers – I just shared with original asker

  • #168799

    Stewart Liff

    Three approaches:

    1. Manage yourself – i.e. look in the mirror and make sure you are not part of the problem. If you are, change your approach. If you are not, manage your attitude by staying positive and not letting your boss define you. Also, gather strength from your co-workers: in other words, work together to create a better atmosphere.

    2. Manage your boss – try and understand what drives him; figure out his learning style and try and communicate with him in a way that will get through to him; and/or drive and build a personal relationship with him around an area of common interest.

    If that doesn’t work, first try and speak with him in a private area. If that doesn’t work, put your concerns in writing in a non-threatening manner. Try and get others to also sign the letter as that will give you more credibility. Putting it in writing may drive your concerns home more strongly. If not, you now have a written record and can pursue the matter up the chain if necessary.

    3. If all else fails, find another job.

  • #168797

    True. Some bosses do not have all the crucial ingredients for good bosses so employees may need to file grievance or EEO complaints. Filing is the last resource!

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