Dealing with Your Kiss-Up Boss

posted by Dilip on July 10, 2018

In many of my previous blogs I have written about how nearly 80% of the managers are dysfunctional, incompetent, indifferent, disengaged, or lack basic leadership skills to inspire their flock. Micromanaging bosses also fall in this category.

However, they are often in that role and continue to rise in power, rank, and influence because they are very good at managing up—kissing-up—to protect their position at the expense of causing harm to their own teams that they are supposed to lead and inspire. This category of otherwise feckless kiss-up bosses also makes for a large part of the 80% segment that I often write about in my blogs. Just to be clear, this 80% number is not pulled out of thin air, but it comes from many longitudinal surveys of large global employee populations (50,000 or more) conducted by reputable organizations—notably Gallop—over the past five or six decades, almost each year.

Although all managers—including CEOs—were part of the overall demographics in these studies, they do not separate managers from all the other categories, so it is safe to assume that managers are no exception to this dismal outcome as a category. Another factor to remember, too, is that the degrees of any of these aberrations vary from barely noticeable to egregious! Now you can come to terms with this high percentage of aberrant bosses; they include the whole range of dysfunctional spectrum.

With such a preponderance of aberrant managers what strategies can you, as their direct report, adopt to keep your sanity and to assuage your everyday stress of dealing with this ubiquitous and recurrent dysfunction and keep your career on track. One admonition I frequently dish out to my clients is not to delude themselves by running away from their errant boss in the hopes of finding a better one someplace else. Always remember the 80% rule! Orthogonal to this rule is the variability and unpredictability of the new organization and its culture as it devolves down to the group you target to join. Translation: You might find a better manager in an even more toxic company.

The best countermeasure, thus, is to isolate each dysfunction of your manager, codify it, and then build your immunity by practicing certain behaviors that not only do not challenge their dysfunction, but also even support it! Also, certain dysfunctions may be more palatable to your own style of operation in an organization.

So, the best way to deal with this reality is to fess-up to it boldly, accept its inevitability, and develop your own immune system to make the most of it to further your career, without you yourself falling a victim to it. This blog is a list of proven strategies that I have evolved by working with many of my clients who had resigned to their fate of dealing with their dysfunctional and kiss-up bosses. This blog deals only with these brownnosers!

  1. Recognize the pattern: Kiss-up bosses, toadies, or brownnosers come in all forms. The most common form is the one that blindly follows the commands that come from their higher-ups and expect their teams to follow suit. The other aspect of this behavior is when such a manager carefully meters out some aspects of an assignment, keeping the key parts under their control or wraps. This prevents their reports from fully understanding the scope of the assignment, their role in it, and how their contributions impact the final outcome. This is one of the ways these toady managers control their power and keep it to themselves, so they are able to take credit for the “success” of their mission when they report it up to their bosses. Their strategy is to disempower their subalterns and grab the power by claiming the credit for their mission in reporting its success up their chain of command. This brings us to the next item:
  2. Comply, not Commit: It is difficult for most conscientious team members to merely comply with the commands of their manager without fully committing to their tasks. They want to know more and they want to empower themselves with that knowledge to do their best in each assignment. Dealing with a toady manager this is a mistake. The more you ask for clarity and information the more they will mistrust you. So, learn how to comply without committing to any assignment that comes your way. It is difficult for the conscientious types, but learn this difference and manage your temptation to fully commit to a vaguely defined task; learn how to comply, instead.
  3. Earn Trust: The less you challenge you kiss-up bosses the more they will trust you to carry out their commands. If you question or ask for clarification on an assignment such managers typically provide vague answers and urge you to figure it out for yourself, which does not take you anywhere. If you guessed wrong then they blame you for not being “plugged-in” with their thinking, so you cannot win. So, just make the best interpretation of their commands you get, tell them what it means to you in terms of your deliverables, and tell them what that will look like when you are done. Send them an email confirming this and then do your best to meet your goal. If they fuss over your deliverables then point to the email you sent after confirming their requirements, as you begin your task.
  4. Learn how to “Complain”: This is a key part of your strategy with kiss-up bosses when you do not get the full picture of what is required of you and yet you are required to be a team player to deliver them what they expect from you without fully committing to the mission (see # 2) is not easy for conscientious team players. They are torn between lodging feckless complaints to their aberrant boss about how they could engage them better and taking their wrath when they come across to their boss as querulous know-it-alls. A good way to compromise is to find a way to script your “complaint” so that they see their benefit in how they need to change their ways to make you more engaged in what you do for them.

    As an object lesson one of my client was stuck with such a brownnose, who was very well respected by the top brass, but was scorned by everyone who reported to him by his heavy-handed treatment of his team and his toady ways to managing his chain of command. Part of the reason he was so well liked by management was because the area in which he was playing a major role was exploding and his company was positioned well. He took credit for all of that tail wind and kept his management convincingly believing how indispensable he was to the company.

    On one occasion my client’s boss decided to develop a plan to further elevate his stature among the executive ranks by staging a C-level event. He asked my client and many of his peers to participate in the pre- and post-logistics of the event without involving any of them in the actual event. Although the C-level invitees were points of contact for my client and his peers they were surprised that these key members of the boss’ team were not allowed to participate in the actual day-long event. My client—and his peers—felt slighted by this design and realized that they could have added significant value to the event by being part of it. My client did not know how to bring it up to his brownnose boss in a constructive way.

    So, we decided to script that discussion to show his errant boss how their participation would have enhanced his glory, because, then each of his direct reports would have a better way to follow-up with the C-level participants and get more out of that meeting than the boss alone was able to get. He agreed and saw the merit of my client’s suggestion. However, if my client had complained to his boss about their lack of participation and expressed being left out of the event in an adversarial way, that complained would have backfired.

  5. Learn how to Kudo: This is yet another tool in the arsenal of keeping yourself in good stead with your toady boss. Anytime you succeed in your endeavors—either on your own or despite your boss’ interference—give your boss the credit and tell them that the success would not have happened without their leadership. It is sometimes hard for honest and hard-working team members to go out on a limb to give such credit, but consider this the price you have to pay for having yourself a toady boss for your manager. If this gets too nauseating learn how to control your sensibility.

The more you fight and resist a kiss-up boss the more you suffer from their errant ways. It is also bad for your health and career, both. So, learn how to deal with them using some of the strategies listed above and assuage your everyday stress of fighting these forces that are hard to escape.

Good luck!