Dear Matthew: My boss is really hard work

Written by: Matthew Turner
Published on: 21 Aug 2014

BD’s career doctor on how to deal with a tricky higher-up

Question: My boss is really hard work and often overloads me. Everyone in the practice seems to know he is difficult but I am the only one who is exposed to him constantly. How do I deal with this?

Answer: The term ‘managing upwards’ has become an accepted in today’s workplace, as many people have problem bosses, it is not that rare. Luckily,managing your boss is not as difficult as it may seem. No matter what your position in a practice, you need to be able to communicate well with your superiors and focus on the things that matter to him or her. This is key to career development success, as well as ensuring that your working relationships are effective. Here are some tips.

Understand your boss’s objectives and how they fit into the practice’s overall goals. Don’t be afraid to be inquisitive and ask questions about these. Accept that your boss is human, with strengths and limitations just like yourself. As when managing staff, it is a good plan to focus on their strengths when trying to manage your boss, rather than trying to remedy limitations.

So ask yourself: What can my boss do really well? Where do his strengths lie? When it comes down to it, changing personal preferences, habits, styles and agendas is difficult. The important thing is understanding what makes your boss tick and developing an effective working relationship.

If your boss isn’t in overall control of the practice and in turn has a superior, try to find out what this higher-up’s priorities are, so that you can understand what motivates your boss and what puts them under pressure.

Many tensions between boss and employee come out of confusion over communication, so think closely about avoiding tension over this. Don’t ask your boss to give detailed guidance on absolutely everything. It’s a manager’s role to make decisions but if you come up with options to choose between, it saves time and reflects well on you. But this needs balancing with keeping your boss informed about details of day to day issues.

When presenting ideas, ask yourself how these will improve the practice’s aims and how they fit in with your manager’s objectives. If they don’t match up, then reconsider and adjust them until they’re a good fit.

It sounds like your work load, or overload, is a major stress for you. Often when a boss appears to chop and change priorities, it can be because they have not been pushed to think through all the deadlines by those working to them. So be assertive and ask which projects need to be completed first and give an honest appraisal of expectations. Also, if you bring your boss a problem, bring a set of solutions too.

Of course it isn’t all about effective processes. Sometimes tensions can come down to personal foibles. Given this, it’s also a good idea to find out about their pet hates and what he considers unacceptable; addressing these can suddenly greatly improve the relationship. Whether it’s being late, poor spelling in emails or your bad CAD habits, make an effort to avoid these.

Managing your career beyond your current boss is also a good idea. Build a bigger network of people in the practice who can be a positive influence for you, as depending on a single boss can be a career limiting experience. Find and get to know the people who really make the decisions in the organisation and uncover people who manage well. You could then volunteer to help or work more closely with them on a project. Build your network both with managers at the same level to your boss and with those higher up. Be sure to build this network with integrity and positive purpose. It’s important not to jeopardise the hard work you’ve put in building a professional relationship with your own boss.

Ultimately, the key to upward management is to retreat from the personal issues and tension, avoid complaining about them and develop sensible suggestions for ways to resolve issues. And remember, given that others might also find your boss difficult, finding ways to work around him is only going to reflect well on you.

Architect Matthew Turner of has worked at a range of offices as well as being a client adviser, project manager and competition juror

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