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Bruce Tulgan - Employees Should Manage Their Bosses (And Here's How)

10 min read
Vlad Kovalskiy
October 29, 2014
Last updated: July 9, 2019
Bruce Tulgan - Employees Should Manage Their Bosses (And Here's How)

Bruce Tulgan is the author of It's Okay to Manage Your Boss (2010), Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (2009), It's Okay to be the Boss (2007), and Managing Generation X (1995). He founded the management training firm RainmakerThinking, Inc. in 1993. 

You write about an epidemic of undermanagement. How can owners and managers automate businesses and set up business processes so that the job gets done and gets done right, without having to micromanage and control everything?

Business leaders often say to me privately that they hope to solve the management problem with technology: “Computers don’t argue, complain, or make demands!” It is a huge mistake to think that by implementing a new process/system/protocol/workflow you can obviate the need for leaders and managers to be highly engaged with their direct-reports.

Good systems are definitely a huge advantage for everyone involved in the business. It is always a good thing to implement technologies that streamline operations. It is always a good thing to set up standard operating procedures (and even standardized points of deviation when appropriate). It is always a good thing to set up systems that monitor, measure, and document KPIs as much as possible.

It is also very good practice to find ways to support employee’s efforts to manage themselves and their work, to self-monitor and self-measure and self-document using checklists and time-logs and project planning tools.

But none of this automates the human element. No matter what systems you put in place, you cannot replace the need for real managers in the real world to provide regular guidance, direction, support, and coaching.

You called GenY employees ‘the most high maintenance workforce in history’ five years ago. Did your view change since? What do you thing about flat management tools, like enterprise social networks, social collaboration tools, social task management and others GenY centric solutions that have bloomed in the last 5 years – do they help?

Good management tools are always helpful for managers and for employees --- of all ages. See above.

Regarding GenYers, they may now be eclipsed as the most high-maintenance workforce by the second wave Millennials, Generation Z (born 1990-99) who are now filling up the youth bubble in the workforce globally. The youngest least experienced people in the workplace may always be, by definition, the most high-maintenance, but today’s young workers are particularly high maintenance. Why? They do not think of employment relationships as long-term and hierarchical. Why should they in today’s day and age? They tend to think short-term and transactional. That is high-maintenance. They tend to have high expectations for their ability to customize their work conditions and high expectations for advancement, along with widely reported gaps in certain non-technical skills such as interpersonal communication, basic work habits like timeliness and organization and taking notes, and critical thinking/problem solving. 

What are the most typical mistakes that managers make when trying to create business processes/systems/protocols/workflows?

Number one mistake: Not engaging sufficiently in the initial stages and throughout the development and implementation with those who are going to have to use the new process/system/protocol/workflow --- not just the leaders, but the doers on the front lines. You need to engage the doers in helping design, develop, and implement. Not lip service. Real engagement.

Number two mistake: Not realizing how many people will be affected by a new process and not including all of those people as well.

Number three: Failing to build a thorough and relentless communication plan throughout in order to get people on board and keep them on board. 

Number four: Failing to build a sufficiently granular training process around the rollout and continuing to make available trainers and troubleshooters and coaches throughout the rollout.

No matter how small a new system/process may be, it is going to change the way people do business, so you must engage all constituents throughout the process and don’t underestimate the need to communicate, train and support people who will be affected.

You’ve suggested that employees need to learn how to manage their managers too, in order to be successful. If you had to teach three most important skills for that, what would they be?

One of our very popular seminars is a guide for rising stars that is very much focused on getting really good at managing your managers. The best practices we teach in a nutshell:

You need to create high-engaged relationships with every boss—whether that boss is great, awful, or somewhere in between.

No matter who your boss may be on any given day, no matter what her style and preferences may be, there are four basics that you absolutely must take responsibility for getting from that boss:

  1. Clearly spelled out and reasonable expectations, including specific guidelines and a concrete timetable.

  2. The skills, tools, and resources necessary to meet those expectations or else an acknowledgement that you are being asked to meet those expectations without them.

  3. Accurate and honest feedback about your performance as well as course-correcting direction when necessary.

  4. The fair quid pro quo--recognition and rewards--in exchange for your performance.
All I do in my seminars is teach frustrated individuals to copy what the most effective -managers are actually doing every day. I’ve broken my approach to real-world boss-managing into seven concrete steps. I call them the seven steps back to the basics of managing your boss:

STEP ONE. The first person you have to manage every day is yourself.
STEP TWO. Get in the habit of managing your boss every day.
STEP THREE. Take it one boss at a time, one day at a time.
STEP FOUR. Get clear expectations from your boss every step of the way.
STEP FIVE. Get your hands on the resources you need to succeed.
STEP SIX. Track your performance every step of the way.
STEP SEVEN. Go the extra mile to earn credit and more rewards.

Be the employee who says to every boss, “Great news, I’m going to take responsibility for my part of this management relationship! I know you are busy. I know you are under a lot of pressure. I’m going to help you by getting a bunch of work done very well, very fast, all day long. I’m going to work with you to make sure I understand exactly what you expect of me. On every task, I’m going to break big deadlines into smaller, concrete performance benchmarks. I’m going to learn standard operating procedures and use checklists. I’m going to keep track of everything I’m doing and exactly how I’m doing it. I’m going to help you monitor, measure, and document my performance every step of the way. I’m going to solve problems as soon as they occur and, if I come to you for your help, you’ll know I really need you. I’m going to learn and grow and be able to take on more and more responsibility. Count on me. With your help, I’m going to be really valuable to you!”

Last question – which sites/blogs/authors should a manager read on a regular basis to stay on top of the game?

Well, of course, I want to say, feel free to follow me on twitter @brucetulgan and I have a regular column in TRAINING magazine and on HuffPost. But I can recommend a lot of others as well. SHRM has great content on a steady basis. ASTD has great content. has fantastic content. There is the great Ken Blanchard. The great Patrick Lencioni. The great Jim Collins. The great Marshall Goldsmith. And I always recommend people follow Alexandra Levitt and Lindsey Pollack.

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