A lawyer’s guide to managing up
5 ways to survive a difficult manager
By Nichola Johnston, Client Relationships and Communications Manager at the Centre for Corporate Health


Promotions based on technical skills and partners being hired based on how large their portable portfolios are as opposed to their people management skills mean some law firms are top heavy with partners who lack supportive leadership styles. This can mean building and managing staff relationships, mentoring junior lawyers, and providing effective management take a back seat to the inherent pressures partners feel around accountability and generating new business.
These types of partners usually have the following attributes:

• Highly intelligent
• Perfectionistic
• High expectations with little time for providing coaching, feedback an guidance
• Set very high expectations for themselves and others
• Heightened sensitivity to feedback.

Couple these attributes with the adversarial nature of the almighty billable hour and toxic emotional outbursts are sure to manifest. If only curling up in the foetal position was an option.

However, when your partner has a significant influence over your career development, your only choice is to work out how to build an effective relationship. Yet another reason to build this rapport is the inextricable link between your sanity and the quality of your relationship with your immediate manager.

Being screamed at or constantly under pressure to deliver on unreasonable expectations can conjure feelings of misery, despair and distress. And no one wants to feel like this each day in the office.

If you want to build an effective relationship with your boss and maintain your wellbeing, try these tips from Rachel Clements, Director of Psychological Services at the Centre for Corporate Health, who coaches partners on how to develop supportive leadership styles.

1. Get to know the partner’s personal style

Make time to get to know your manager’s preferred management style. While it may not be ideal, knowing what it is gives you the opportunity to match or adjust your interpersonal style to theirs. If your manager is task-focused and direct, don’t spend time asking them about their weekend on Monday. Instead, be well prepared for meetings, don’t waste time and communicate succinctly. Maybe your manager doesn’t give clear direction and gets fired up when you don’t execute what they think they have asked you do. Adjust by feeding back to them what you understand your required actions to be at the end of a meeting. This will cut down on any miscommunication or misinterpretation of what they need from you.

2. Identify their emotional triggers

By trial and error you likely already know what triggers or provokes an emotional outburst from your manager. Learn them, know them and manage them! If your managing partner is particularly worried about a project deadline not being met, keep them updated regularly on your progress without them having to prompt you.

3. Be realistic about behaviour change

It is important to remember that you won’t ever change your manager’s behaviour. You can, however, change how you choose to react to their behaviour and its effects on your wellbeing. To do this, focus on your own behaviour and not what you can’t control. You will find this gives you more time to influence situations in your command and you may also inadvertently create positive change in your manager.

4. Find a mentor

If your manager is too busy or lacks the necessary skills to provide you with effective career development, be proactive in seeking a mentor. It is common practice for lawyers to have a different mentor to their manager.

5. Shift your mindset

If you know your manager’s behaviour is particularly gruesome at times, work at strengthening your resilience so you are able to bounce back more easily. When your resilience funds are depleted, an enraged manager can send your wellbeing into a downwards spiral. Look at developing skills that allow you to shift your stress response from “I can’t take this, it is too much pressure” to “this is just my body’s way of helping me rise to the challenge”. Shifting your mindset will not only change how you feel, but also flip the negative physical effects stress can have on your body to positive ones.

So for the sake of your own wellbeing, stop wasting time despairing and trying to change your manager’s behaviour. Instead, focus on what you can do and how you can adapt your behaviour to build a more effective workplace relationship.