Managing a virtual boss

Sep 14 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

If you manage a virtual team, odds are you are also part of one with your own boss. In fact, eight out of 10 project managers say that they are part of a remote team themselves (either their own boss is not co-located or a number of their coworkers aren't). This means that we need to talk about managing your virtual boss. Even if you don't have to do it, odds are your direct reports do.

The idea of managing your manager is as old as time. It's basically what Macchiavelli's "The Prince" is all about, and Joseph was managing Potiphar just fine until the boss's wife got involved. In her newest book, Managing Your Virtual Boss- 140 Ways To Make the Virtual Organization Work for You, author Carmela Southers has a lot to say on the topic.

I recently spoke to her and here's what she had to say:

Why is it the employee's job to manage the boss? Isn't that why they're the boss?

From a very practical standpoint, I see three primary reasons:

First, if your boss is effective, your chances of success are improved. So why wouldn't you want to help him or her be effective?

Second, many bosses who are skillful leaders face to face, struggle to manage virtually. Effective virtual leadership may require changes in performance management systems and how productivity is tracked. Leaders need to be able to trust others to be productive, and to know how to build relationships virtually. Both of these are new skills for most leaders. If your boss has taken leadership training,(I hope so!), most of the skills are focused on managing by walking around, not managing via email.

Finally, in my experience, every minute you spend thinking and complaining about what others 'should' be doing, is a minute that you could have spent taking action to be more successful. Resumes that say "I could have been great, if only others had..." don't get you jobs and raises.

In the book you talk about "blowing your own horn with dignity". Why, and how do you do it without sounding like a jerk?

The 'elegance' part of self-promotion can be tricky, that's true. A few things to keep in mind are:

  • Your boss doesn't see you working, doesn't really understand your skills and contribution, and probably doesn't fully understand the challenges you face.
  • Your goal is to provide information to increase understanding, not to sell yourself as something you aren't, or only provide a flattering or unrealistic perspective. That's why my book also provides strategies for how to communicate negative information as well as positive.
  • Another aspect to keep in mind is never to compare yourself to others. State and show what you are accomplishing, not how you compare to Dave in the next office.
  • And the last issue - and this one is important - when you mention your success also include a mention of those who have helped you. Sometimes it is easier if you make sure you are praising others, not just yourself.

If the working relationship isn't what you want it to be, how can you reset the connection between you and your virtual boss?

This is a huge question, and the answer depends on your personality, your boss' personality and your working situation.

  • If we assume that you have a reasonable trust level, the first part of the strategy is to prepare yourself. If you want your boss to change behavior, you must be willing to change your behavior first to model what you want. (If you are not willing to take this step, feel free to stop reading now.)
  • Whether you take a direct or indirect approach may depend on your personality but your first step is to get a clear understanding of how your boss perceives you and your work. You can set up a meeting, or just casually inquire about how you are doing on a specific task or project, but in some way, you will need to request feedback, and make your boss feel safe that you will handle the feedback without painful drama.
  • Consider preparing yourself by imagining that you are going to a lab for a health check up. You will be receiving data on your blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, height, weight, etc. Prepare yourself for some data, perhaps information you won't like. Consider it as receiving check up results.
  • Don't take it as a personal attack, or a statement that you have a character flaw or are worthless. Simply take the information as data.
  • Even if you don't believe the test results, and think the tester doesn't really understand, don't respond to the feedback immediately, just say thank you.
  • Remember how we said earlier that your boss probably doesn't understand your situation and skills? Assume that is true, and don't take offense if she is clueless.
  • Also assume that the information provided is true, at least true in that it is a reflection of what the boss is experiencing. If your boss can't distinguish between red and green because they are color blindÖ what they see is still what they see. Their perception is their reality

What's your favorite tweet in the book?

This is the easiest question of all. Tweet#77: Forget diamonds. Emails are forever.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.