As a legal professional, your ability to work well with others often can mean the difference in whether your career advances or stalls, as well as how much you enjoy your job. And it’s especially important to have a good working relationship with your immediate supervisor or managing attorney. But that’s not always as easy as it sounds.
At various points in your career, you’re likely to find yourself reporting to someone with whom you clash in various ways. Sometimes it’s a minor difference, such as having conflicting communication preferences. Or, you may be like the odd couple, differing in every possible way. In either case, the burden of making the relationship work is likely to fall on your shoulders.
Not all managers are difficult to work with, of course. Most have gotten to where they are because they have highly attuned soft skills. But if you do find yourself working with a difficult boss, the odds of changing the individual’s personality or long-established modus operandi are probably slight. Therefore, you may need to take the initiative to improve your interactions.
Here are some of the most common types of problematic managers, along with suggestions on how to adapt to them:
The Micromanager. These bosses find it almost impossible to delegate responsibilities and let go of projects. Whether they’re in or out of the office, they feel compelled to check in frequently with their staff members, often bombarding them with e-mails and voicemails filled with numerous questions or detailed instructions and advice. Micromanagers also tend to be overly critical and may second-guess others’ work-related decisions.
What can you do to loosen the leash? Try to expand the micromanager’s comfort zone so that he or she can let go and learn to trust you to do your job. Offer assurance that your manager will not be surprised by unwelcome developments. Providing more frequent updates and status reports might also help micromanagers feel more confident about delegating. In addition, try framing your plans as suggestions — for example, “If you agree, I would like to assign two additional paralegals to that case.” Although you may chafe at the idea of having to get the micromanager’s stamp of approval on every last detail, this approach should build your boss’s confidence in you and eventually lead to more autonomy.
The MIA Manager. A complete contrast to the micromanager, these supervisors never seem to be around when you need them. Or, they may be physically there but rarely provide sufficient direction, leaving you to make educated guesses about how best to carry out your responsibilities. Worse, these bosses may lack a sense of urgency when you most need it.
You may need to actively “manage” the MIA boss to get what you need. If the individual has a poor track record of getting back to you, try approaching him or her and seeking an on-the-spot answer. It might also be helpful to set up a system of regular communication, such as daily phone calls or short weekly status meetings.
The Waffler. These bosses tend to be indecisive or vague when it comes to making decisions, even when time is of the essence, such as when you need to make a deadline-driven decision about a case. Wafflers also are known for not providing clear objectives or constructive feedback.
Try to compensate for the waffler’s behavior by making decisive, confident recommendations rather than asking for guidance or advice. This also entails clearly communicating deadlines and following up with your boss to prompt a decision if necessary.
The Critic. Unlike wafflers, critics make their opinions known, and typically in a negative, demoralizing way. Critical bosses tend to fixate on small mistakes and blow them out of proportion. They may mistakenly believe they are motivating you to improve performance.
Even if the criticism doesn’t seem very constructive, try to view it as informative. Remember that behind every complaint is a request. By zeroing in on what they don’t like, critics are indirectly communicating how they want the job done. Try reading between the lines for the instructions buried inside. You’ll often find answers in remarks that begin with: “Why didn’t you…?” or “You forgot to….” Armed with the insights you glean, you should be better able to handle similar situations the “right” way in the future and avoid negative feedback.
The Mercurial Manager. You never know from one day to the next what you’re going to get from these bosses. On Monday, they assign you urgent responsibilities relating to a pending case, but by Thursday they’re redirecting you to something else. Not to mention the boss’ emotions range from manic to placid in the course of a day.
How do you cope with these unpredictable managers? Try keeping a daily or weekly log of what you’ve spent your time doing. If your marching orders keep shifting, sit down with your boss and recap your recent activity. It’s possible that mercurial managers may not realize how much they vacillate, and holding a mirror up may lead to greater consistency.
Regardless of how demanding or difficult your boss may be, focus on protecting your job and career. Remaining professional and flexible will help minimize differences, prevent conflict and maybe even help you discover areas of compatibility that will allow you to achieve a workable relationship, despite your manager’s frustrating behavioral tendencies.
Charles A. Volkert is executive director of Robert Half Legal, a leading staffing service specializing in the placement of attorneys, paralegals, legal administrators and other legal professionals with law firms and corporate legal departments. Based in Menlo Park, Calif., Robert Half Legal has offices in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.