Managing Up: Author Interview with Mary Abbajay

Published on
June 25, 2018
Karina Mikhli
"Keep it simple. What you're doing either works or it doesn't and if it doesn't, try something else--and ask for feedback. This applies to the service you're selling and to the people you're managing."
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Mary Abbajay, author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, understands the importance of getting along with your boss. As the president and founder of Careerstone Group, Mary has worked with individuals and companies for over 20 years to help develop effective leaders and organizations.

Since Mary has seen firsthand that people leave bosses and not companies, she decided to write a different type of leadership book: one that doesn’t teach the usual managing down, but instead focuses on the critical managing up that even CEOs need to do well. In this book, Mary takes you through the different boss workstyle personalities and all the major difficult boss types, so you know what to look for and how to handle each type. I recommend that anyone who has (or plans to have) a boss pick up this book, so that regardless of who you end up working for, you’re well equipped to succeed.

1. What made you decide to write this book and why now?

I wrote this book to help people succeed with the boss that they actually have—not the boss they wish they had. I want people to take control of their careers and workplace experience. Difficult bosses and challenging co-workers are—and always will be—an unfortunate fact of the working life. Stewing about these people only damages our morale; and simply wishing for a better workplace is well, wishful thinking. During my 20 years as an organizational consultant, I’ve experienced too many people struggling with who their boss is, and resisting the simple truth that we can’t change our boss’ nature, we can only change how we interact with them. Sitting back and complaining does us no good. If we want a better workplace experience, then we need to learn to be more effective in our relationships. It’s time for us to learn how to be empowered followers, to take an active role in managing our careers, ourselves, our bosses, and our experience.

2. Did you ever have a boss that you found challenging to work with? How did you handle things?

Yes! I’ve had many bosses (and clients) that I found challenging. I’ve worked for bullies, screamers, micromanagers, incompetents, nitpickers, etc. You name the difficult type, and I’ve worked with them! In almost every case, I’ve found a way to make the relationship work—it isn’t always easy, but there are ways to navigate difficult personalities.

Managing a difficult boss requires emotional detachment and strategy. It also requires putting one’s ego or need to be “right” aside. To get emotionally detached, I simply force myself to assume positive intent on the part of the other. Instead of labelling them as a horrible person, I tell myself that they are doing the best that they can (or know how to do). Next, I look at this person as a puzzle to figure out. What is it that they need? What drives them? What are their priorities, preferences and pet peeves? Then, I ask myself, what am I willing to do differently, more of, or less of to develop a positive relationship. Finally (and most importantly) I ask myself, can I let go of my need to be “right” or my ego to make this relationship succeed?

For example, I once worked for a micromanager who kept her direct reports on a very short leash. While everyone else just complained about her, I decided to strategize. She wanted control and inclusion, so I gave it to her. I began giving her status memos every day that summarized everything I was working on. I did this at the start and end of every day. I was also careful to put her priority projects at the top of the list—regardless of whether I considered them priorities. After a few weeks, I started to reduce the frequency of these updates. Within 12 weeks, I was only providing her with one weekly update. By then, I found myself with the level of autonomy that I needed to make myself, my boss, and the organization successful (and everyone else jealous). Yes, it required extra effort on my part, but it worked and was well worth the effort. Plus, those update memos eventually became my resume.

3. You acknowledge that a boss can be a mixture of the different personality types but don’t do the same for the innie (introverted) and outie (extroverted) bosses. What if your boss is an ambivert?

There is a lot of debate going on now about ambiversion. An ambivert is someone who falls in the middle of the introvert/extrovert spectrum. Ambiverts have a blend of traits from both introverts and extroverts. In reality, everyone is an ambivert because we all have introverted and extroverted behaviors, tendencies. and preferences. Nobody is 100% of anything all the time. While some people are naturally born with only slight preferences on either side of the spectrum, others learn to cultivate both sides of their extroverted and introverted personality.

Ambiversion—whether it is innate or learned—should be everyone’s goal for the workplace. We should all learn the value and need for introversion and extroversion. An ambivert boss will move back and forth along the introversion/extroversion spectrum. The key here is to be adaptable yourself so that you can move along the spectrum depending on your boss’ energy and communication needs at the time. Pay attention to when your ambivert boss leans toward introversion or extroversion and meet them where they are. This can be a great opportunity to hone skills and behaviors on both sides of the spectrum.

4. For several of the difficult bosses, you recommend protecting yourself and not taking it personally. As someone who has had several of these types of bosses (including the truly terrible type), I know how difficult that can be. Is there a trick you’ve seen work more than others to be able to separate work and the rest of your life (and mental health)?

This can be one of the hardest things to do. First of all, determine whether your boss is difficult or truly terrible. Difficult bosses are those that make your work life difficult and annoying—like micromanagers, nitpickers, impulsive, etc. They are not necessarily bad people, just bad at being managers. For these people, I suggest assuming positive intent on their part. Assuming positive intent (e.g., they are doing the best they can) requires empathy. It’s amazing how different we can feel when we adopt a little empathy.

However, if your boss is “Truly Terrible,” like bullies, screamers, tyrants, egomaniacs, etc., then your protection strategies need to be cranked up. If you find yourself working for one of these, the key is to protect yourself until you can get out. This is about emotional survival. Three strategies to consider:

  • Create a golden shield: At the beginning of every day, imagine you are putting on a golden shield or force field around your soul. This golden shield needs to keep you from internalizing the behaviors and impact. Visualize your force field or shield blocking your boss’s poison arrows. It sounds silly, but it really works. Do what you can to prevent the internalization of their attacks. Protect your psyche.
  • Stay out of the line of fire: Do what you can to remove yourself from as much contact as possible. Identify safe spots; sometimes the Truly Terrible are reluctant to show their colors in front of others. When in the midst of an outburst, do what you can to excuse yourself in a calm and rational manner. Try to lay low and fly under the radar as much as possible.
  • Activate your support network. A strong support network is critical when dealing with a survival situation. Make sure you have appropriate professional and personal support and contact. Seek the support of friends and confidantes. Find other outlets—such as volunteering—where you can feel fulfilled and validated. Have outlets outside of work for socializing and reducing stress. Talk to a coach, therapist, or other trained professional. Surround yourself with friends and people who support and encourage you.

5. Do you think difficult bosses can be taught to be better? In other words, are they “born” bad bosses or have they learned to be bad bosses and therefore can be retrained?

I believe most people can learn anything if they want to! Two key aspects must be in place to create better bosses: 1) an individual desire and willingness to learn, grow and change; and 2) organizational accountability.

There are plenty of bad or ineffective bosses in the workplace. Most ineffective bosses are ineffective because they lack emotional and social intelligence. Turning bad bosses into good bosses means selecting people who are ready, willing, and able to cultivate emotional intelligence. They must be willing to learn, develop, and value the soft skills required to be a good boss. This almost always requires people to engage in deep self-reflection and be willing to fundamentally change how they interact with others.

The second part of the equation is organizational accountability. America spends $14B a year on leadership and management training and development. Yet, according to study after study, the number one reason people are unhappy with their jobs or quit is because of their boss.

Organizations have to start holding people accountable for being good people managers. Despite all the research on leadership, employee engagement and culture, organizations still promote people based of their technical acumen instead of their leadership, management, or relational acumen. Then once in a management position, the organization continues to reward these managers based on business results and not on employee engagement or happiness. Until organizations start truly valuing managerial aptitude, there is little incentive for difficult bosses to change their ways!

6. What is the one thing we can all do every day at work to ensure we are effectively managing up?

Manage yourself first. Then your boss. Take responsibility for always bringing your best and aligning your work to your boss’ needs, wants, and priorities. Take the time to really learn what is important to your boss and do your best to deliver on those priorities.