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sometimes bosses act like hammers and their team members like nails

Boss Taming – being a leader by managing upwards


I arrived back in the office late yesterday afternoon, and immediately asked to do something urgently that would “only take a minute” by my business partner (and husband) Bob – who was on his way out to an Olympic football match.  I left 4 hours later.  It reminded me of corporate life, and, like many people, I’ve had great bosses in my time, and experienced the worst.  Yet when you look for tips to help you to tame your boss, improve your leadership and manage upwards, there’s not a lot out there.  Yes, there are plenty of blogs and chat rooms where people upload their misery, but  I think we need a more practical guide to boss taming.

The good news is, it’s much more in our control than we think; so here’s my top 4 tips.  Boss-taming requires self-management, Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and leadership.  Now don’t get me wrong – I love bosses; I admire the work they do, and through my coaching work, I appreciate the challenges they face every day.  That’s why they need support and yes, to be managed and led.  They need you to show your leadership qualities – so that they can trust you to deliver, be a positive and active team member and rely on you when times are tough.  And sometimes, occasionally, they need taming…

Here’s the 30-second summary:

  1. Emotional Self-Awareness – start asking yourself two questions:  ‘how am I feeling’ and ‘what triggered that emotion’?
  2. Accept, Blend and Create – accept your boss for who s/he is, and practice blending that with clear requirements
  3. When you deliver, show that you’re delivering.  When you DHL come to the door, you give them a signature – what’s the equivalent hand-off to your boss?
  4. Use the STOP Technique, see below

Here’s the longer version:

Tip #1 Maintain your Emotional Intelligence (EQ)

One of the key EQ principles  is self-management; be aware of your own emotions and things that trigger you, before pointing the finger at colleagues or your boss, and their behaviours.  It’s much simpler to manage others when we’re aware of our own shortcomings – forgiveness, especially, becomes so much easier.

The second reason EQ is vital in boss-taming is that we need to build resilience.  Yes, they do have a habit of emerging from their office at 4.30, demanding a polished presentation “before I get in tomorrow morning” – and we can build resilience simply by accepting that that’s sometimes how they behave.

Tip #2 Demand clarity

Acceptance isn’t a green light to become a doormat: it’s a reminder strategy not to rise to the bait.   Successful boss-taming is getting clarity from your boss – so that you know when to accept what’s being put before you, and when to push back:

  • Precisely what is wanted?
  • When exactly is it needed?
  • How much time before it’s delivered does your boss really need, to review and revise it?
  • Why does it need to be a particular way?
  • What other special requirements does your boss – or his/her boss – demand?
  • Where are the unknowns that have to be added later?  (e.g. sales figures, the financials, the deadline)

Only when you are fully briefed can you respond – and cut down on going backwards and forwards with more questions – which is emotionally draining.  You’re better placed to spring into action; as you’ll be in a better state of readiness.

Tip #3 Deliver, as Promised 

The global just-in-time logistics industry delivers things in perfect working order, exactly when they’re needed.  Bosses, in contrast, build in review time and ‘wiggle room’ because they don’t trust their team members to deliver what’s needed, when it’s needed.

It takes time to build trust and demonstrate ‘on time, every time’ performance, but it’s this ability to deliver that is the Number One thing bosses want.  It’s also important that you show your boss that you deliver.  This is part of resilience and requires patient repetition: when we say “here’s the plan you wanted, as promised” what’s important is that bosses hear the ‘as promised’ part.  Then you can cut down on the amount of review time s/he’s allowed – because they know they can trust you, right?

But what about when my normally gentle boss turns into a snarling alien?

Yes, it happens to the best of us.  It’s a recipe for disaster.  Someone overslept; the journey in was terrible and then the boss erupts; it’s like a lightning storm over a volcano.  In my experience, it can go one of two ways: either people rush in all directions like headless chickens, firing off orders to show that they are in control and decisive.  In the days when I worked on major stadium events, with deadlines looming and everyone tripping over someone else’s toes, it increased risk and bad decisions.  Or there’s another way –

Tip #4 The STOP Technique

What I’ve seen employed to fantastic effect is the ‘STOP’ technique – as devised by Tim Gallwey and described in his book “The Inner Game of Work”.  We’ve adapted this for use at our leadership training events – I remember a group of Head Teachers using this method to address their biggest challenges, step by step.  In summary STOP stands for


  • Just stop for a moment, take a breath


  • Think through what’s really troubling you, or
  • Put yourself in your boss’s shoes and think about what triggered his or her mood


  • What options do you have right now?
  • How might you manage this challenge?
  • What resources do you have to get past this situation?
  • Think about the skills or tools you need – who can help you?


  • OK, now you’re focused, let’s get going

So boss-taming requires leadership from within, good self-management, so that we can face the ups and downs and whatever bosses, spouses or business partners throw at us.  To create great working relationships we need to know that we can trust each other to be clear about what’s needed, why it’s important and that we will deliver as a positive Team Player.  Managing up matters, and maybe, one day the boot will be on the other foot…


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

2 thoughts on “Boss Taming – being a leader by managing upwards

  1. This is a great analysis. I especially appreciate the emphasis placed upon emotional intelligence (EQ). Great points made about demanding clarity. the leader will appreciate the interest and may examine themselves to make sure that she/he is communicating effectively.

    • Thanks for the comments and feedback Warren. Of course, being aware of the need to grow our emotional intelligence, and actually applying it under pressure are two different things. For me it’s a lifelong practice. I hope our leaders aren’t starting from the very low level I did! Happy New Year to you.

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