What to do when your boss keeps changing

It’s never easy to have several bosses in as many years, but there are ways to make this challenging situation more tolerable

Photo: iStockphoto
Photo: iStockphoto

In some workplaces, reorgs and personnel changes are constant, which means that you might be getting a new boss every few months. How do you develop an effective relationship with your manager when the person filling that role keeps shifting? How much of an investment should you make? How can you get what you need to succeed and grow in your role? And is maintaining continuity your responsibility?

Managing your relationship with your boss is challenging enough as it is. When that person changes every six months, the task becomes a lot more difficult—and time-consuming. “There’s a big part of work that is relational,” says Reb Rebele, an instructor in the Master of Applied Positive Psychology programme at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of Collaborative Overload. Priscilla Claman, president of Career Strategies Inc., a Boston-based consulting firm and a contributor to HBR Guide to Getting the Right Job, agrees that having to cycle through new managers is “one of the world’s most frustrating things”. Your “impulse may be to duck and hide”, she says, but you must instead be proactive. It’s never easy to have several bosses in as many years, but there are ways to make this challenging situation more tolerable. Here are some tips.

Schedule an ‘interview’

Let’s not sugar-coat this. A new manager can be “very dangerous” to your career prospects, says Claman, because “the person who hired you will always love you more” than someone who inherits you. You must therefore “do the best you can to make it seem as though you’re being hired by the new boss”. Schedule an appointment to meet her one-on-one and bring a copy of your resume. Speak about your accomplishments as you would in a job interview. It’s important to “spend this early time with your new boss having those kinds of conversations” particularly if it’s a volatile time at your organization. Think of it as a “co-onboarding process”.

Discover the new priorities

Next, do a little detective work. “You need to find out the reason why this boss was appointed and what it means” for your organization and your career path, says Claman. “It may have something to do with the failures of the previous manager, but it’s more likely that the new boss signals a change in the organization’s direction or a shift in its mission.” To find out, talk to your peers, your colleagues in other departments, or your boss’s boss. Get involved in your new manager’s orientation process. Then, either “align yourself with the new priorities” or, “if your firm is heading in a very different direction, think about whether you still want to be associated with it”.

Modify and adjust

One of the most challenging things about dealing with these frequent changes is that “it’s hard to get into a rhythm”, says Rebele. “The benefit of working with someone over time is that you know what to expect and there’s a lot of predictability.” When the org chart is in flux, however, you need to regularly “update your mental models” and modify your behaviour and work style. Claman says it helps that you “not think of these people as your bosses”, but instead as “very important clients”, each with “his own quirks and special needs”. You need to “adapt and change”, and accommodate. Ask each new boss how he likes to communicate. Ask how often he wants status updates. And find out how much detail he wants in those updates. After a month or so of the new normal, “ask for feedback about how you’re doing”.

Invest in the relationship, even if it’s temporary

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you don’t need a strong relationship with a new boss who may soon be replaced, says Claman. “You need to make a big investment” no matter how short you expect the person’s tenure to be. This is as much for you as them, Rebelle notes. “Having good relationships with colleagues and your boss makes your workday more enjoyable” and efficient, he explains. “You don’t have to be best friends” with a new manager, but it’s a good idea to make an effort to get to know her. Ask about her hobbies, her weekend plans and her family. Be open and curious. If those conversation topics go nowhere, default to work.

Focusing on learning

Even in the best professional situations, you shouldn’t “rely on your boss for all of your development needs”, says Claman. But a new manager will almost certainly have something useful to teach you. Perhaps he’s a sales whiz, a brilliant marketing strategist, or has great technical chops. Transient bosses may not be in the best position to mentor and coach, especially when it comes to navigating the organization, but Rebele points out that they do often bring “novel information—a new background, new experiences, and new perspectives”. They can allow you to “see your work with fresh eyes”, he says. So take advantage of the “opportunity to learn”.

Check your attitude

You may find that you don’t like or respect your new boss as much as your old one, but don’t dwell on the negative. Rebele suggests you “focus your attention and energy on areas you do have control over and things you can do to improve the situation” like being a “helping contributor”. Claman concurs. “If you start thinking, ‘I’m the only one here who knows what’s going on; these people are clowns,’ that will come through in your work,” she says. Similarly, don’t moan to colleagues about your new-boss whiplash. If you need to vent, talk to your spouse or your friends (provided they don’t work at your company).

Maintain relationships

One bright spot of the frequent management switches: the number of senior managers who can vouch for your work increases. That’s why it’s smart to treat even short-term bosses as part of your growing professional network. “Our networks can be helpful to us down the road in ways we can’t always foresee,” Rebele notes. Even if you decide it’s too much work to stay in touch with all of them, “never bad-mouth your current boss to your old boss”, Claman adds. “Not only could it mess up your relationship with your new boss, it might also taint the feelings your previous boss had for you.”

Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.

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