Is Your Boss Territorial?

Seven ways to manage up and keep the peace

Posted Aug 17, 2017

You’re about to meet with one of your new clients when your boss suddenly decides to  join you. You pause at first, but figure, “the more the merrier.” You get there and are blindsided. Your boss completely takes over your meeting, even though he no longer does hands-on client work. You’re dumbfounded.

This scenario is similar to a child who’s outgrown a jacket and it’s time to pass it on to a younger sibling. He may not have worn the jacket in ages and already has a new one. Still, he doesn’t want to give it up … “no, no, no!”

Lynn Taylor Consulting
Source: Lynn Taylor Consulting

In both cases, it’s all about giving up territory. Cue the classic outcry: “It’s mine!” While this mindset is understandable in a child, it’s a lot harder to deal with in a boss.

What to Do

There are many ways a boss can be territorial — from defending office space to failing to relinquish key tasks. It’s easy to feel powerless as an employee, but you really do have the ability to mitigate the problem, empower yourself, and thrive in your job.

Here are seven ways to manage up with territorial bosses:

1) Identify the motivation. What’s triggering the problem in the first place? Maybe your predecessor made a lot of mistakes and it’s hard for your boss to trust that you won’t do the same. Or maybe your boss was an all-star in your role — winning the company MVP award three years straight — but things have changed now that she’s transitioned to her new job. She’s no longer generating the same accolades and pines for the glory days in your role.

Understanding the reason for the territorial behavior not only gives you some perspective, but also may help you feel less defensive and better prepared to take action.

2) Consider your own role. Have you done anything that might encourage the territorial behavior? For example, maybe your team needed to learn a new accounting app — and since you used it all the time at your last job — you offered to lead the training without consulting your boss first. You may have triggered the “after my job!” siren by trying to assume too much responsibility too quickly.

3) Talk about it. Having a root canal may seem more comforting than confronting your boss. But it’s worth the effort to step forward and take the initiative. The alternative is to let it fester, and we all know where that goes … nowhere. Diplomatically ask about the situation, starting and ending on a positive note. In the middle, consider: “I was a little caught off guard when you became active again with ABC Company. I wanted to find out if you have any concerns we might discuss?” What seemed like a mountain may prove to be a molehill. If not, you’ll at least know where you stand.

4) Keep communications lines open. Always be transparent and keep your boss in the loop, particularly if the person is insecure or competitive. If you meet with your manager’s boss about a project, for example, make sure your manager knows why. You’re less likely to face suspicion or public criticism if you’ve already laid your cards out on the table. 

5) Create a game plan. Know how you plan to handle common challenges. Maybe you’ll be presenting a new idea at the next staff meeting and your boss is likely to shoot it down automatically, because that’s the pattern. You might start off presenting the idea in a way that praises your manager — e.g., “Your great idea for that new product feature in last week’s meeting made me think that we could also …”

6) Be humble. A great way to dispel the notion you’re after your manager’s job is to admit when you need help. Ask your boss for guidance and listen. Also, try to publicly praise your manager’s ideas when you’re sincerely impressed — and do the same for others on your team.

7) Reassure your boss. Make it clear you’re not trying to pursue a land grab or hog the spotlight in your zeal to get the job done. If others want your time, get your boss's approval first. Keep your manager your number one priority, which will offer reassurance that you don't have a competing agenda. If your boss is a Terrible Office Tyrant (TOT), it may be time for some "parenting-sans-patronizing" skills!

Next Steps

Even in taking all the right steps, you may still find your boss is so territorial that it’s hard to produce solid results. If that’s the case, it may be time to explore a lateral move or greener pastures elsewhere.

But more often than not, you can manage up in this situation by being proactive and persistent. In fact, you may just be handed that coveted jacket … minus the tantrum.