5 ways to manage your autocratic boss

May 6, 2011, 3:20 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: I am a senior software specialist with decades of experience. Yet the

manager I’m working for still doesn’t trust me and won’t grant me any decision-making flexibility. In fact, he treats me like one of the enlisted men who worked for him in his previous career in the military.

I’ve consistently kept my skills up to date through multiple technology evolutions, and my knowledge of my field is far superior to his. Nevertheless, he limits my “bandwidth” to what he understands, which is nowhere near my potential. As a team, we’ve paid the price for his ignoring my technical advice. How can I get him to loosen up and treat me like a senior team member, if not an equal? — Seething in Silence

Dear Seething: Yikes. It sounds like you have two separate problems here — your manager’s top-down, command-and-control management style, and the fact that he seems to know less than you do. Let’s start with the first one.

Anybody reporting to a difficult person (which includes most of us, at one time or another), has three basic choices, says Gonzague Dufour: “Limit the pain, target the gain, or leave.”

In a new book, Managing Your Manager: How to Get Ahead with Any Type of Boss, he identifies six broad types of “bosses from hell” and offers practical strategies for minimizing the damage they can do to your career, not to mention your blood pressure.

Dufour, a longtime HR chief at Philip Morris (PM), Kraft (KFT), and other large companies, now runs executive recruiting and development at Bacardi. He wrote the book because “I’ve been asked hundreds of times over the past 30 years, ‘How can I deal with this impossible boss?’” he says.

He also reported to a few bad bosses himself, including one who was “smart, empathetic, and incapable of making a decision,” and another who was “skilled at getting promoted in large part because he was equally skilled at blaming others when things went wrong.” At times, he recalls, while having to work closely with a maddening higher-up, “I felt we were the equivalent of a dysfunctional married couple.”

In your particular situation, Dufour suggests trying these five steps:

1. Limit the pain, target the gain. Recognize that working for this person is “a temporary assignment. You can set limits on how long you’ll tolerate it, and use the time to make yourself more marketable.” Let’s say you decide you can take one more year of this (assuming your boss sticks around that long). “If you figure out what you need to get out of the job to help your career, and go after it, you have a positive incentive to serve out that term,” Dufour says.

2. Avoid surprises. Autocrats, even more than most people, “hate to be blindsided,” Dufour notes. “Therefore, keep them informed of significant, and even relatively insignificant, developments. They crave control and power, so feeding them tidbits of information satisfies this craving.”

3. Be the go-between for your team. If you haven’t already taken on this role, Dufour recommends that you earn the trust of other members of your group and be the one who communicates their problems and needs to the boss. “This can be intimidating, since it means telling him things he might not want to hear,” Dufour says, “but the tradeoff of elevated status is worth it.”

4. Refuse to be a “yes man.” Although many people try to appease an autocrat by telling him exactly what he wants to hear and following every order to the letter, “this is a huge mistake,” Dufour says. Instead, “wait until you’re convinced your manager is making a huge mistake” — one that will jeopardize his own stated goals — “or until you come up with a better idea that you truly believe in.”

Then, make a concise, logical case for your approach: “Emphasize the positive outcome. Focus on what your boss will get out of doing as you suggest.” If you’ve already tried this, keep at it: “Rehearse your argument beforehand and make sure you are stating it clearly and rationally” — and without a trace of condescension for his (alleged) lack of technical knowledge. Sometimes, of course, it’s not what you say that can trip you up, it’s how you say it.

5. Do the tasks your boss dislikes. In general, command-and-control bosses “don’t enjoy extended debate and discussion, and they aren’t adept at dealing with any type of ‘people problem’,” Dufour observes. So consider making that your specialty (which will do no harm to your own long-term career prospects either, incidentally).

Helping your boss compensate for his lack of soft skills “won’t earn you thanks. In fact, he may resent your ability to do something he can’t,” notes Dufour. However, even autocrats are rarely so oblivious that they don’t know, deep down, that ignoring “people problems” will eventually damage their own professional prospects — and that, says Dufour, “is one thing they can’t stomach.”

Now, about your second issue, to wit, your perception that your boss’s technical knowledge isn’t up to snuff: It’s up to you to make sure his shortcomings don’t hold you back. If you haven’t already started doing so, Dufour urges you to develop an area of expertise and then get busy building a network all over the company.

“Create alliances with as many different people as you can, from human resources to other technical areas to support staff,” he says. “The point is to become widely known as the ‘go-to’ person for a particular thing, so that your reputation and your career do not depend solely, or even mainly, on the good will of this one boss.”

Even if you worked for the world’s most fabulous manager, “you need to be visible, or you’ll miss out on opportunities,” Dufour points out. Get noticed by just one of the right people and who knows: You could get promoted out from under this guy sooner than you think — and then he’ll be somebody else’s problem.

Talkback: Have you ever worked for an autocratic boss? Who was the worst boss you ever had, and how did you cope? Leave a comment below.

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