October 18, 2018

‘Managing up’ strengthens the bond with your boss

By: Cynthia Saver, MS, RN

What kind of relationship do you have with your boss? Many managers feel they don’t have enough support from their supervisors, and still others believe the relationship could be better. In the 2018 OR Manager Salary/Career Survey, for example, about a third of respondents had a neutral or unfavorable view of support from their immediate

Mary Abbajay

supervisor, which suggests there’s room for improvement.

“Managing up” is one way to foster an effective bond with your boss. “Managing up is about you taking charge of your workplace experience,” says Mary Abbajay, author of Managing Up: How to Move up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.

Managing up starts with being a good follower and assessing your boss (and yourself), and then taking steps to build and nurture the relationship. It also means taking action when faced with a “difficult” boss. Being proactive will help bolster your career and improve the work environment.


Benefits of followership

A lot of research has focused on dissecting the nature of leadership, whereas followership languishes in its shadow. A Google search for “leadership” returns 1,950,000,000 results, compared to 896,000 for “followership.”

But as Abbajay points out, everyone has a boss, and even a chief executive officer is a follower. “We are all following and leading at the same time,” she says. A good follower isn’t a sycophant, but rather someone who plays an active role in a relationship.

“I like to reframe followership from that of a power hierarchy to a relationship,” Abbajay says. “It’s understanding how you can work better with those who are in charge or are above you in a way that is good for you, the organization, and the patients.”

Part of a successful relationship means being adaptable and understanding that people, including your boss, may have priorities, preferences, and pet peeves that differ from your own. “You need to understand what you can and cannot change about the relationship,” Abbajay says. “Being adaptable and flexible will help you be effective in your job and your career.” It will also help mold you into someone that others want to work for.

How can you build a better relationship with your boss? It starts with a step familiar to all nurses: Assess.


Assess the boss—and yourself

Abbajay identifies four common work style personalities that are similar to the four social styles of driving, expressive, analytical, and amiable (for more information about social styles, see https://www.tracomcorp.com/social-style-training/model). Although people may have elements of all four, they tend to gravitate to one dominant style.

Assess your own style, not just your boss’s, to gain great insights into the relationship. For example, knowing that your boss has a “harmonizer” work style personality, whereas you are an “advancer,” will help you anticipate feeling frustrated when your boss doesn’t act fast enough to suit you, and you will be better able to temper your response.

In addition to work style personality, consider the differences in priorities, communication preferences, generations, and pet peeves between your boss and yourself (see related article, “Cross-generational communication: A two-way street”). Referring to pet peeves, Abbajay recommends asking yourself: “What am I willing to let go of to get the job done?”

Being honest and objective in your self-assessment can be harder than you think—psychologist Tasha Eurich found that 95% of people think they’re self-aware, but only 10% to 15% really are. Consider seeking input from trusted colleagues to ensure a more accurate assessment.


Creating the bond

Jane McLeod, MSN, RN

Communication is fundamental in creating a relationship with a new boss and maintaining its effectiveness. “I don’t think you can over-communicate,” says Reagen Jacek, BSN, RN, director of surgical services at Chippewa County War Memorial Hospital in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. The hospital has three ORs, a C-section room, and an endoscopy/procedure room. “And if you don’t understand something, follow up to seek clarification.”

Ask how your boss likes to receive information and how often, says Jane McLeod, MSN, RN, cofounder of Capstone Leadership Solution, Inc, Sault Ste Marie, Michigan. Some bosses might prefer short emails, and others might want a daily or weekly face-to-face meeting.

Be sure to keep the boss in the loop, particularly in the case of potential problems. “Information is something that bosses crave,” McLeod notes. “And they don’t like surprises.”

Cindy Kildgore, MSHA, BSN, RN, CNOR

Regardless of frequency and format, come to a meeting prepared to provide a succinct report and discuss issues that require decisions, says Cindy Kildgore, MSHA, BSN, RN, CNOR, perioperative services director at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Kildgore meets with her managers every other week, and she says trust is key: “The more you and your manager trust each other, the better the relationship. You don’t have to be friends, but you have to interact in a manner that is trusting.”

Kildgore adds that it’s important not to let any negative personal feelings about your boss (or staff) interfere with the professional relationship. “Don’t treat them any differently than those you like,” she says. “Maintain an air of professionalism.”

First-time leaders navigating the change from staff member to manager may find it particularly challenging to create a bond with their new boss. “When you move from a staff to a leadership role, the rules change,” says Rose Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, director of the nursing leadership institute at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “You are much more on your own, both in the way you do your work and in gaining the support you need.”

Rose Sherman, EdD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN

First-time leaders should understand that their boss doesn’t necessarily know what they need. “The reality is that you may not be on the leader’s radar screen because that person is so busy with his or her own responsibilities,” Sherman says. “You need to be clear and direct about what you need.” For example, ask the leader for 1 hour each week to ensure you are on the right track.

What if your new boss is new to the organization or the department? “Explain the history of things [to provide context],” McLeod says. Don’t assume a boss knows about the department simply because he or she has worked elsewhere within the organization.


Nurture the relationship

The key to a successful ongoing relationship with your boss is for both of you to be open and direct, and have clear expectations, Jacek says. “Hold each other accountable,” she advises.

McLeod suggests holding monthly accountability meetings in which the focus is on business. “They [leader and his or her boss] do not let drama or the whirlwind interfere with discussing the metrics, goals, and strategy of the individual department,” she says.

And, of course, doing what you said you will do is always a good idea. “Follow-through is the secret sauce of leadership,” McLeod says.

Abbajay advises having a conversation with your boss based on these questions:

  • What are your preferences around work? This refers to work style and communication: Big picture versus detail oriented, and fast versus moderate pace.
  • What are your priorities? What do you really care about for yourself, the department, and the organization? What are you trying to achieve?
  • What are your pet peeves?
  • What could I do more of, or differently, to better align with the way you want to see things happen?

“People who have had this conversation tell me that it was life-changing,” Abbajay says. Yet in her experience, employees rarely initiate this type of conversation.

Kildgore recommends a strategy she learned from her own boss: Filling up the bucket of goodwill—for both boss and staff. “You fill up the bucket of goodwill by talking with people, being available, making eye contact, and really listening,” she says. Because you have been open and honest, when something negative happens, Kildgore says, “people will pull up that bucket of goodwill and [be forgiving].”

OR leaders should give their bosses feedback, just as they do their staff. “[Bosses] require feedback, as do all of us,” says McLeod. “My most pivotal moments as a leader were when my trusted employees coached me on something.”

Positive feedback is something leaders appreciate, but honesty is key, McLeod says. It’s important to be able to provide both constructive criticism and compliments so they will know you are being sincere and not just trying to flatter them.


Gaining the support you need

Support from the boss means different things to different people. Abbajay says an important first step is to identify specifically what support is lacking—for instance, lack of communication versus lack of assistance with solving problems. Sherman adds that lack of support can happen for a variety of reasons; for instance, the boss may lack the needed skill set, or perhaps the chemistry between you and your boss isn’t there.

“You may need to talk [the situation] through with someone who has knowledge about expectations and can ask questions to gain clarity,” she says. “You want to make sure that your expectations aren’t too high and that you aren’t overreacting.”

If you aren’t getting the support you need, ask for it. Managers often feel their bosses should know what they need, Abbajay says. “Too often, we expect our bosses to be mind readers. We don’t make effective requests.”

The key to asking for support is to connect the request with the boss’s goals. Abbajay says an effective request includes the following elements:

  • what is needed (be specific)
  • why it’s needed
  • what the benefits are (to the boss, organization, patients, or others).
  • Give the ‘whys’ behind your request,” Abbajay says, adding that small shifts of behavior can do much to improve the relationship. For example, she knows she is a fast talker, so she consciously slows down when talking with someone who communicates at a slower pace. “It’s the difference between the golden rule [treating people how you would like to be treated] and the platinum rule [treating people how they would like to be treated],” she says.

If you aren’t getting enough feedback, ask for it. “Be proactive,” Sherman says. “Communicate what you’re doing, and ask for feedback about your performance.” McLeod had a boss who was excellent in many ways, but poor at giving feedback, and she learned to ask for a coaching meeting. “She would ask her boss: “Give me one thing that I need to work on at some level.”

It’s also important to ask for support for your own career development. Let the boss know, for example, if you want to continue moving up the leadership ladder, and ask for advice on how to do so.


Challenging bosses

What if your boss engages in ineffective or hurtful behavior? In this case, you need to have a frank conversation about the behavior with the boss. Jacek shares her experience with a previous manager. “She didn’t have perioperative experience, so she would try to micromanage,” she says. The key was to mentor the boss by helping her understand that it was acceptable not to know something, as long as she was willing to learn. Jacek also shared what the boss was doing well. “We had a lot of conversations, and eventually things got better. She was more trusting.”

Unfortunately, some bosses don’t respond to feedback, no matter how thoughtfully it’s delivered. What should you do in this situation?

Abbajay recommends considering the organization’s attitude toward poor managers. “If you work for an organization that doesn’t hold managers accountable, know that you can’t change the culture of your organization, you can only change how you navigate and respond to it,” she says.

Abbajay also offers the following strategies:

  • Appreciate the opportunity, and embrace the challenge. “You will learn and grow more from a difficult boss than you ever will from a great or easy boss,” she says. For example, poor bosses can help you learn what kind of leader you want to be.
  • Identify the difficult behavior. Instead of labeling the person as “difficult,” identify the problematic behaviors and develop strategies to address them.
  • Assume positive intent to the best of your ability. Many difficult bosses truly feel they are doing the right thing in their role.
  • Own your own rub. Some behaviors are more difficult for us than others. For instance, if you highly value your autonomy, you may perceive a boss as being a micromanager, whereas another staff member may think the level of supervision is just fine.
  • Seek to understand. Try to determine what is behind the behavior. For instance, a nurse executive micromanager might be uncomfortable with his or her own knowledge of the OR, as was the case with Jacek’s experience. Once you understand that, you can help the executive by providing information.
  • Decide what you can live with. Abbajay says the most important question to ask is: “Can I live with this behavior?” The satisfaction you derive from your work may make you more tolerant of a difficult boss, but some behavior may be unacceptable. You may need human resources to arbitrate the situation, and ultimately, you may choose to leave the organization.


Success for all

Your relationship with your boss can have a powerful effect on your career, and managing up can help tip the scale to the positive.


Cynthia Saver, MS, RN, is president of CLS Development, Inc, Columbia, Maryland, which provides editorial services to healthcare publications.



Abbajay M. Managing Up: How to Move up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 2018.

Eurich T. Insight: The Surprising Truth About How Others See Us, How We See Ourselves, and Why the Answers Matter More Than We Think. New York: Penguin Random House. 2017.

Sherman R O, Saifman H. Transitioning emerging leaders into nurse leader roles. J Nurse Admin. 2018;48(7/8):355-357.

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