Want to boss the boss? Our five tips show you how

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Your boss is likely to be psychopathic, Machiavellian or narcissistic – or maybe even a charming combination of all three. So argues Oliver James in his 2013 book Office Politics: How to Thrive in a World of Lying, Backstabbing and Dirty Tricks.

At a time when corporate ‘success’ is a largely subjective issue, James argues that the rise to the top can be a game best played by those who excel in being duplicitous, ruthless and utterly self-centred. So if you think your supervising partner lacks empathy, has an ego the size of a house or seems to thrive on acts of sheer malevolence, you’re probably right.

In fact, law firms might be among the worst places for bad boss behaviour. James describes many of the partners in one elite law firm he researched as humourless, charmless and utterly unaware of the thoughts and feelings of others. Sound familiar?

There are no doubt lots of lovely and caring law firm partners out there. May your career ladder be forever supported by these paragons.

But let’s face it, you probably are going to face one or two who have a decidedly more Machiavellian take on the meaning of that word. So how do you get around these more tricky partners?

  1. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. Make a point of getting to know the partners who will have influence over your career – regardless of whether at this moment you like or respect them. Find out what motivates them, keeps them up at night, and what they admire in those around them.
  2. Tailor your behaviour. Once you know your boss, play to their personality type. Is this the kind of partner who will appreciate you showing initiative and self-leadership – requiring their minimum day-to-day input? Or will this threaten their sense of authority and need to be directive, in which case make a point of regularly seeking their input and guidance (even if you think you don’t need it)? If you’re not sure, ask colleagues who have worked with them longer for their views.
  3. Be a practical help. All bosses have weaknesses. One might be totally disorganised, another forgetful, and a third completely blind to the more sensitive/personal issues impacting the team. Then make a point of making life easier for said boss. If your boss doesn’t know which way is up, think up a system that will help the whole team (including the boss) keep on top of daily tasks/meetings – even if that just means putting a big ‘to do list’ on the wall. If there’s a tricky personal issue disrupting the team, but your boss doesn’t do ‘touchy-feely’, offer to act as an intermediary. Remember, though, all of this must be done without bruising those big old partner egos. Make them feel like the success is theirs, even if it’s not. Your time will come.
  4. Stand up for yourself. If you’re working for a Gordon Gekko (and assuming your own motto isn’t ‘greed is good’) then you’ll probably have to put on a bit of a tough-nut act for a while. This doesn’t mean you have to come over all City boy, but do stand your ground in a calm and professional manner if Gekko starts to throw their weight around. The personality type can be aggressive but tend to respect an underling’s ability to fight back. Don’t run off to cry in the loos – at least not until the Gekko is out of sight. And remember nothing is for ever: this boss will pass.
  5. Don’t be afraid to raise concerns. Not in a whingy way, but in a constructive one. You might think that your dissatisfaction is obvious, that your boss is blatantly ignoring your needs or making wholly unreasonable demands of your time. Meanwhile, your boss thinks that you’re coping so well, and seem so calm, that he/she doesn’t ever need to intervene. You don’t communicate until you hand your notice in at which time he or she is shocked to hear your views. Give your boss a chance to be better by letting him or her know how. If you still get no joy because your boss is an out-and-out arsehole, by all means jazz up your CV.

Cynical game-playing? Not really. It’s what we all do as social creatures every day of our lives. We bring to the fore different aspects of our personalities to best fit in or get ahead. Whilst we give ourselves labels (shy, confident, brave, fearful, introvert, extrovert, and so on) we know deep down that we can be all of these things, many times over.

Actually, even Oliver James’s psychopathic CEOs might not be all bad. They’ve just been conditioned to demonstrate a very narrow range of behaviour because that is what they believe generates success – one reinforced by the experience of continual promotion. Whatever lies beneath is increasingly hidden in order to stay ahead.

Know this, embrace this. And who knows? Today you might just manage your boss. But tomorrow you and those like you might just change the world. CP

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