The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The boss is always right

If you are the boss, Juergen Luerssen, a German marketing professor, has good news for you. His advice to subordinates is to pander to the boss, no matter what. The advice applies “even if the boss is truly useless”.

Luerssen recommends that employees or lower-level managers accept that irrespective of whether their boss is weak, indecisive and generally incompetent, there is only one sensible thing to do. Stop complaining and support him in every conceivable way.

In her book Be Happy in Your Job, Hannelore Fritz urges those with even the most moody, pessimistic and floundering “superiors”, to “break the negative thought cycle” and praise him. Help him believe it is incredible how well he is coping in such tough times.

While this may sound like dire self-flagellation, those who inflict this on themselves are only following one of the greatest unwritten laws of the business enterprise. No matter how unjustifiable and irritating they are, you must use existing power structures to get ahead.

Whether subordinates like it or not, their direct superior is almost inevitably the most important person in the entire company, particularly in terms of career advancement. Years of experience and research have made it clear that no matter how much the boss is indecisive, tyrannical, or maligns subordinates in public, his or her opinions will count in the next promotion round.

In the end, it is not really about the employee and the company as a whole, but about the employee and those people who promote and pay. This is all confirmed by Jens Weidner, author of the best-selling The Pepperoni Strategy, which stresses that nothing matters more for progress up the career ladder than the ability to think and act politically and understand how to use power — including someone else’s.

Likewise, Sabine Asgodom, author of Reach for the Stars, devotes an entire chapter to “making your boss happy”. After all, “he is not going to change, so you have to”. Specifically, subordinates must change the way they interact with the boss and “manage his needs selflessly and generously”.

Prominent writers such as the sociologist Max Weber, discussed such issues hundreds of years ago. For Weber, power entails “every opportunity to impose one’s will in a social relationship, even in the face of resistance”.

Organisational life revolves around power, so tapping into the prevailing sources is the key to success. Anyone who influences the behaviour of another through his actions, exercises power. And power tends to accumulate within existing spheres of influence.

It can, argues Weidner, be saved and used later. The same applies to getting into the boss’s good books. Accumulated favours and goodwill can be applied when they are needed. For this reason, ambitious middle managers, or indeed anyone who wants to move upwards in the hierarchy, must understand, accept and look after the boss.

Luerssen’s main career tip is to try and solve the boss’s problems. He or she who takes over the responsibilities of the overloaded and stressed-out superior, particularly when the latter is not really coping, will ultimately make both parties look good. This symbiotic relationship will be duly rewarded.

Admittedly, employees find it difficult to profile themselves when their superiors are unable or unwilling to delegate. Such bosses keep the most rewarding activities for themselves and give underlings the routine and dreary ones. At some point, however, things are sure to go horribly wrong, or, better still, be about to go wrong. It is then that one can offer to help out.

The main thing is to make it quite clear, but only by implication, that the boss is welcome to take the credit for everything that goes right. This should be presented in flattering terms, along the lines of how nice it would be to see the boss rewarded for his astute and prudent management. It was a pity, of course, that the circumstances were adverse, through no fault of his own.

Everything that goes wrong can be blamed on the subordinates, the state of the market, the competition, the government or an act of God.

It is reassuring for managers to be told that these external factors, and not they themselves, caused all the trouble.

Tyrannical, really nasty bosses are somewhat more difficult to cope with. Management coach Michael Rossie points out that really unpleasant prima donnas can rob even the most enthusiastic and competent people of the joy of work.

Even here, however, it may be possible, in a private discussion, to explain how motivating it would be and thus good for business, if certain things were changed.

Whatever the case, the main thing is to avoid complaining about the boss, no matter how tempting it may be. Particularly if the relationship is already somewhat strained, the most valid complaint maybe converted into a justification for making things worse for you.

The hard reality of corporate and organisational life, says Luerssen, is that rebellious subordinates generally get the short straw, because top management tends to side with those with the rank and power. It is precisely for this reason that power plays can be extremely unfair, but those who play along or exploit them, generally get ahead.

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