Reframing - a tool for succeeding with unsupportive bosses

In a 2018 article about how to deal with bosses, The Harvard Business Review cited a study in which “75% of Americans say their boss is the most stressful part of their day”, and another where “one in two employees have left a job to get away from their manager”. I’ve been very lucky to work for bosses whom I look up to, learn from, and nurture and support me. My success is due in large part to standing on their shoulders. But I’ve also left jobs to get away from unsupportive bosses. Although these numbers are not specific to the tech industry, statistically you are more likely to have the latter kind of relationship. If so, and attempts at “managing upwards” haven’t worked, you could benefit from reframing your relationship from “boss-employee” to “client-vendor”.

Consider a situation where your boss is disengaged with most of the work that you’re focused on, perhaps because they’re uninterested in it or even opposed to it. But they have other work they insist that you do, and either are unwilling to help you accomplish it, or won’t negotiate with you on scope when it really matters. Maybe they leave you floundering and when the output doesn’t match their hopes, they criticize or even attack you. Or maybe the strain caused by their excess demands is forcing you to do heroic work, and over time this becomes an unspoken (and maybe unrewarded) job expectation. Because we expect support and engagement from bosses, this dynamic over time can leave you feeling anxious, unproductive, and detached.

While we expect our bosses to be supportive, we definitely don’t expect our clients to be supportive. Indeed, mocking client expectations is one of the great inside jokes of the product development world. So instead of treating your boss like your boss, consider treating them like you would a client. You are always respectful of them, you accept that their expectations are often unrealistic, and you expect them to beat you up. In many ways, the relationships are actually the same because in both cases you are expected to serve, and in both cases you are unlikely to be able to change their expectations of you. But you can change your expectations of them, and this will allow you to stay connected with your mission, with your team, and with the company. Before you run for the door, give it a shot. It could address those negative feelings while also creating space for you to do what you do best.