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Managing Upward: What to Do When Leadership is Failing

Managing ego and conflict in the workplace is an unfortunate reality of working, but it can be very difficult without adequate leadership.

Navigating upward leadership

Managing ego and conflict in the workplace is an unfortunate reality of working, but it can be very difficult without adequate leadership. If you realize that your leader is the source of conflict rather than the one to resolve it, you might find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to manage your boss.

This is more common than you might think— only 19% of workers polled by Gallup in 2022 believed that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. 2 of the top 5 causes of employee burnout are poor management, according to Gallup’s Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures Report.

There are a lot of reasons why a leader is failing in their position— they might be egotistical, uninvested, a poor listener, demanding, or disrespectful. If that’s the case with your boss, you can’t necessarily change their behavior but you can take several steps to protect yourself in your workplace and make things as efficient and pleasant as possible. Here’s how to ‘manage up’ when leadership is failing.

Turn Problems into Opportunities

If you’re dealing with a manager who can’t take criticism, you need to find a workaround. One way to communicate clearly without being too direct is to frame problems as opportunities.

If you can’t rely on this boss for straightforward guidance, do some pre-work before approaching them. For example, you can say, “There’s an issue with X. Here are some details, and here are some ideas I had for approaching this. Do you have any suggestions or input on how we can improve X?” This helps soften blame and gives them some distance from their failings.

By giving difficult people options to succeed instead of just coming forward with issues (that they caused!), they will be less likely to feel attacked and more receptive to finding a positive solution.

Dive Into Your Boss’s DISC Style

Understanding behavior is key to resolving conflict in the workplace, and that’s where the DISC assessment comes in. You might not be lucky enough to know your boss’s DISC style, but the good news is that DISC is observable! You will likely be able to gain a loose understanding of their patterns of behavior; then, you can compare them to your behaviors.

If you do have access to shared DISC results, check to see if your leader is over-adapting.

Over-adaptations happen when a job’s core responsibilities are fundamentally different from an individual’s standard behavior.

There’s not a lot you can do if your boss is in an ill-suited position but you can adjust your behavioral style to support them and help fill in skill gaps or gaps in understanding.

Pick Your Battles

Not every misunderstanding or error is worth an altercation, especially when you have a difficult boss. Knowing when to let an issue go is a crucial workplace skill.

If you’re known for your level-headedness and for staying out of conflict, this will help the people around you take your concern seriously. It might even make an impact on even the most neglectful leader, so try to limit your involvement in conflicts that require the involvement of your boss.

Know what to fight for: high-priority projects and situations that directly affect your quality of life at work. Then let the little stuff go.

Frame Criticism as Questions

This method of management is a great way to deal with anyone who clams up at criticism. It allows you to present the issue neutrally and seek out an answer together, rather than directly calling out the failing person. Instead of, “You aren’t doing X so I can’t do Y”, try

“There are some issues with X and I’m struggling to do Y. What would you do in my situation?”

By asking for their point of view, you’re allowing your boss to correct their mistakes without necessarily looking bad. Make sure to watch your tone while asking questions in this way— it can be easy to sound insincere which will work against you.

When It Comes to Legality, Get Blunt

Sometimes, management is clueless about the legality of certain situations. If you’re aware of something illegal potentially happening or currently happening, you need to speak up as soon as possible.

“Managers can sometimes be quick to act, depending on their personality,” said Jennifer Lopez, Director of Human Resources and Culture at TTI SI. “For example, if I’m working with a leader who wants to fire someone, I have them walk me through the entire situation and start a checklist to track it all. I point out the steps that haven’t been taken. It’s important that they understand termination shouldn't be the only solution, and sometimes it legally cannot be the solution.”

It can be difficult to step in and correct someone, but in legal situations, you have to. Your boss should thank you later, and if they don’t, you can at least rest easy knowing that your involvement is protected.

Make sure to document everything! Emails with timestamps are best but if your boss insists on talking in person or on the phone, type into a document that shows the time and editing history. See more on this below.

Document Everything

When it comes down to it, you need to protect yourself in your workplace. It’s unfortunate but not uncommon for a bad boss to implode and try to take down anyone else they can so make sure that you are not that person.

A best practice is to take private notes in every meeting. Note who is in attendance, what was discussed, deliverables for next time, and any statements you find important or inflammatory.

Try to get as many statements, promises, and discussions in writing as possible. Creating a paper trail will protect you if someone tries to lie or pass on blame in the future.

After meetings, send follow-up emails summarizing the call and detailing the next steps. Offer to do this during the meeting to keep the team on track and you will be appreciated for your contribution while protecting yourself simultaneously. A loose outline will work here— you just want to be able to point to your contributions and any unfulfilled contributions after the fact.

This might feel like a drastic measure and it very well might be, but doing this pre-work and not needing it is better than finding yourself in a difficult situation with a failing manager after the fact.

Make Managing Upward Work for You

Being forced to lead your leaders is a very difficult position to be in, but you can be prepared and make it as easy as possible. Focus on how you frame problems, dive into your boss’s DISC style, pick your battles, keep everything legal, and document everything. You can protect yourself and get through a difficult situation in anticipation of better times ahead.

About the Author

Jaime Faulkner believes authenticity and storytelling are the keys to successful marketing. As a graduate from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, she loves finding and connecting narratives. When she's not at work, she's psychoanalyzing contestants on The Bachelor, painting, listening to podcasts, or playing tabletop RPGs.

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