Managing your boss: adjusting to narcissists, 'ghosts,' gaslighters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Most people think of managing as a top-down process, but you also “manage” your boss, whether you realize it or not.

Careerstone Group President Mary Abbajay poses in an undated photo obtained by Reuters on February 3, 2021. Courtesy Careerstone Group/Lydia Carlis/Handout via REUTERS.

How you do it can be critical to workplace success, personal growth and mental well-being, said Mary Abbajay, president of training and consulting firm The Careerstone Group, who calls the process “Managing Up.”

Reuters sat down with Abbajay to discuss how to become expert managers, no matter where you are on the corporate ladder.

Q: How do you define “Managing Up”?

A: It’s about managing your relationships with the people above you in the food chain, so everyone can succeed. Our bosses have a lot of influence over our career trajectory. If we have good relationships with them, good things will happen for us.

You can’t necessarily change other people or their behavior, but you can understand their operating system. Our power lies in our ability to adapt and be flexible.

Q: What different types of bosses are there?

A: Some bosses are introverts and keep to themselves. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about you, it’s just a different way of operating.

Others might be extroverts, always in your face and talking things through.

Then there are ‘advancers,’ who want to make things happen fast; ‘evaluators,’ who are detail-oriented and want to get things right; ‘harmonizers,’ who are nice and conflict-averse; and ‘energizers,’ who bring a lot of passion and new ideas.

Q: Which bosses are more difficult to handle?

A: You might have a micromanager, a ‘ghost’ boss who is never around, a workaholic or someone who is very impulsive.

You might have a ‘seagull’ boss who swoops in and takes projects away, or a narcissist, or a gaslighter.

Whichever kind of boss you have, it’s important to try and figure out what is driving their behavior.

Q: Being a boss is a tricky job. Why is it so hard to get right?

A: We tend to promote people because of technical skills, and not because of an acumen for people management. Also we are not training people properly in the first place to become good managers.

It’s often the only way to get a raise or get promoted, so a lot of people don’t even want to be managers. The chances of being a naturally good boss are pretty slim.

Q: This idea of ‘Managing Up’ is not about sucking up, right?

A: This isn’t about changing who you are, at all. It’s just about adjusting how you interact with that person.

So if your boss is an introvert who never reaches out, you might have to be a little more proactive about getting on their calendar. We all want managers who see us as individuals – and the same thing is true in reverse.

Q: What if you find yourself in a truly toxic work environment?

A: My advice is to get out if you can. Toxic situations make you emotionally and physically sick. It can take years to recover. Have a good support network in place, limit your exposure with that toxic boss and stay under the radar. Adopt a survivor mentality until you can get out.

Q: How has today’s virtual environment affected boss-employee relationships?

A: There are a couple of challenges. The first is that many managers are resistant to virtual work, because they don’t trust that people are getting work done.

Second is that they really don’t know how to manage virtually. This has been such a sudden shift, and everyone has so many competing priorities, and we’re all trying to figure it out together.

You need to have a conversation with your boss, and agree on how virtual engagement is going to work: How do you want to communicate? How often do you want to hear from me? How often do you need updates on projects?

Check in regularly, stay on their radar and don’t assume your boss knows how much you’re getting done. Let them know.

Q: Has pandemic stress and burnout changed workplace relationships at all?

A: Many clients are asking us to do workshops on stress management and mindfulness. There seems to be a lot more empathy from managers, who want to know what’s really going on in their employees’ lives.

You should check in on how they’re doing, too. When an employee just says, ‘How are you doing?’ a little kindness like that goes a long way.

Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang