How to boss your boss

Manage up in a pandemic (and anytime)

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Heyyo Emily,

I’m working through the pandemic and jumping over associated hurdles from my cozy queen sized “home office,” with my own two children along for the ride.

I have seemingly been promoted from school marm/head mistress to (now) summer camp counselor overnight. 😌 Cool!

Considering the heaps of grace that I have been exchanging with colleagues and collaborators—it’s been OK.

But now that I’m finally learning to “let go” and “complete the tasks, don’t worry about the hours” (hello, Sheryl Sandberg), the home-based work world is shifting back to hard deadlines and “business as usual.” I’m like, Hey!? I just got here you guys! And now I’m summer camp counseling. 🤔 

Remember when every email/zoom would start out with “How are YOU doing?” It got old, but it was a nod to the shared surrender we had to the complications of global pandemic. We were so supportive back then.

I can feel the expectations going back to pre-Covid levels, and meanwhile I’ve got these little cherubs to summer. I feel like I’m back in the self help/motivation section searching for the “How to appear normal during a Zoom meeting from your queen sized home office bed” manual. We’re not there yet!

Signed,

Still need grace

Dear Still need grace,

The last time I was a full-time employee for someone other than myself was at a large company. I had a big salary and I managed several people and was responsible for marketing decisions, some corporate-municipal relationships, recruiting writers, planning content for a national publication, hiring staff, training, etc.

In the interview, there were two women asking me questions— a younger woman I assumed would be reporting to me, and an older woman who had recruited me to apply. I didn’t much care for the younger woman—I found her manner patronizing a bit and I could tell she prided herself on being both hard-nosed and ultimately kind-hearted, which gave me the idea that she might pride herself on absolutely everything she did or said (an enviable attitude maybe)—but I figured I could manage her okay. I think of management duties as consisting mostly of appreciating, guiding, empowering, and protecting.

It wasn’t until I got the offer letter the next day that I realized the younger woman would be my boss. Suddenly, all my ideas about how I should encourage her, keep her out of my hair, and put her talents to good use flew out of my mind. Shit, my boss. I don’t like bosses. Bosses are the ones I think of as needing constant ego massages, reassurance, oversharing, outsized displays of enthusiasm for the job, endless deference and ass-kissing. Yuck.

To make a long story short, that job crashed and burned. Or rather, I did. No, it wasn’t completely my fault. But in the fullness of time, in hindsight, I see the seeds of my demise in the emotions I felt when I read that offer letter and realized who I’d be reporting to. I know today that there might something screwy about my relationship to bosses.

I also know that there is, thankfully, a remedy: I should never think of anyone as my boss. Had I only treated her as if I were her boss, things would have worked out so much better, because it’s a better look for me. From here on out, my bosses work for me. I will take good care of them, but they’ll have to obey the boundaries I set.

Where I’m going with this for you is that I think you need to choose a story that makes you shine, that makes your work better and makes you behave in a way that will get better results. Please do not choose the story of you being a misunderstood worker with too much parenting to do to live up to high standards.

Another example of the power of narrative: police

Police have learned to manage up. They consistently manage, abuse, and boss around the public: their actual employers! Mostly it’s the guns and the uniforms, but also have you ever heard a cop try to sound casual? “How ya doin’ today, buddy? Been drinking a little? Mind if I take a look in your trunk? Whatchya got there, Miss, something that’s not yours?” So unconvincing, but so powerful in eliciting certain reactions, reactions like a rush to babble helpful information. The way cops act puts the onus on YOU to calm and de-escalate the suddenly terrible situation that the cops themselves are causing!

They are pushing a certain narrative: You did something wrong. It’s up to you to pacify them, convince them, appease them fast.

Often, cops refuse to allow for the possibility of another narrative, like that they are overreacting or that they work for you or that you deserve respect and even deference from them.

Decide on your narrative.

You are an efficient, self-directed, highly expert worker/producer and you are working with people who totally know this about you and admire you for it! You have everything under control, but now that you also have to take care of young children all summer, with no summer camps (you badass!), you are rightfully being even more creative and ninja-like with your time. You are making smart decisions about what must be done now and what can wait and what should be taken on by someone other than you. Everyone looks up to you for this. They are lucky to have you on the team.

How will this narrative effect your behavior, your demeanor on calls?

I think it could stop you from being defensive or apologetic. It could throw your shoulders back and make you admire the way you look on the Zoom call—all multi tasking and lithe. It might imbue your voice with a certain charismatic timbre. It will also keep you from worrying about checking your shoulders or the timbre of your voice, because you could give a shit.

Last night we finally watched Ford vs. Ferrari, a movie I had been avoiding because it sounded like it was going to be about Ford vs. Ferrari. But the movie is really about the driver and car engineer vs. the vice presidents at Ford—the assholes in suits trying to grab control, take credit, and introduce unnecessary controls and interference. It’s the story of management messing things up for the real talent, the people who actually know how to build the car and drive it.

The funny thing was that the vice presidents were introducing the very obstacles getting in the way of the success they wanted! It would have been better if they had simply not existed. Or, barring that, the vice presidents should have simply had a better narrative: Our team is going to win because we are going to provide them with what they need to succeed. (Instead of, if I don’t police them hard enough, we won’t win.) The Ford team only won by pretending that the vice presidents had no authority over them.

Another idea: Remind everyone on your team that you will also be working as a camp counselor this summer, and so your office work will sometimes be done while they are enjoying a nice glass of rosé on their decks. How ya doing, Sheryl? Had a little bit to drink tonight?

Best of luck,

Emily


Please send a letter to me at EmilyWritesBack@gmail.com. I write back.