Do You Understand Your Boss's "Operating System"?

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People are a puzzle. And when that person is your boss, solving the puzzle may be critical to your future success. Managers differ in their communication and decision-making styles, but perhaps the most fundamental difference is in their value systems.

Because values are installed at a very early age, they essentially become our “operating system” and guide our beliefs about the right and wrong way to do things. See if you can spot your boss among the five common value systems described below: Control, Conformity, Competition, Affiliation, and Innovation & Development.

Value System 1: Control

Basic Beliefs: Controlling managers believe the person with the most power makes the rules. Their greatest need is to feel in control in all situations, which they accomplish by relying on their formal power and authority. Conversely, losing control is their greatest fear. They respect strong leaders and have contempt for weakness.

Motto: “Might makes right” or “You have to look out for number one.”

Leadership Style: Controlling managers are directive and autocratic. Their strength is that they are willing to take charge and initiate action. Their weakness is that they alienate employees. They often use fear-based management tactics, like yelling or threatening. They reward those who are quickly compliant with their requests. Interestingly, however, they may become submissive when dealing with those whose power exceeds their own.

Strategies that may work: To work effectively with a Controlling manager, you must be neither resistant nor submissive. Resisters will be viewed as insubordinate, and submitters will be seen as weak. To present a different view or idea, do so in a manner that is not challenging and leaves the final decision up to the manager. Instead of directly disagreeing, say “Let me ask a question about that” or “Let me see what you think about this idea”.

What you should NEVER do: Never get into a power struggle with a Controlling boss. That will just get you labeled as “hard to manage”. And don’t expect them to become more democratic. Not likely to happen.

Value System 2: Conformity

Basic Beliefs: Conforming managers play by the rules and don’t want to rock the boat. Their greatest need is to fit in and feel that they are similar to others in their group. Their greatest fear is standing out or being different.

Motto: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered” or “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Leadership Style: Conforming managers frequently refer to rules and procedures. Their strength is that they help to insure consistency in an organization. Their weakness is that they will not challenge the status quo. They do not like to be the first to try new ideas or approaches. They reward employees who conform and punish those whom they see as rebellious.

Strategies that may work: To work effectively with a Conforming manager, you need to help them feel safe. Indicate that you value consistency and tradition. When you present a new idea, make it seem like a logical extension of past practices. If you are proposing a change, indicate how you will obtain support from key people. Cite policies or precedents to support your case.

What you should NEVER do: Ignore policies and consistently complain about procedures. Make insulting remarks about how things have traditionally been done.

Value System 3: Competition

Basic Beliefs: Competitive managers believe that life is a contest and you have to play to win. Their greatest need is to be successful at everything they do, and their greatest fear is losing.

Motto: “The end justifies the means” or “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

Leadership Style: Competitive managers like to set clear goals so they can tell who is winning. They encourage competition among staff and reward top performers. Their strength is that they focus on results. Their weakness is that they are willing to bend the rules to accomplish their goals and may be tempted to engage in unethical practices. They almost always want to be promoted and enjoy having symbols of their status.

Strategies that may work: To work effectively with a Competitive manager, you must focus on specific goals and objectives. To win approval for a new proposal or idea, you must link it to a clear improvement in results. If you fear that your manager may be taking unwise risks, indicate how doing so could interfere with future success.

What you should NEVER do: Appear apathetic about meeting goals or objectives. Argue about the importance of success.

Value System 4: Affiliation

Basic Beliefs: Affiliative managers are “people people”. They believe that the needs of people should come before any other consideration. Their greatest need is to preserve harmony, and their greatest fear is being disliked.

Motto: “Getting along is more important than getting ahead.”

Leadership Style: Affiliative managers develop friendly relationships with employees and like to get to know them as people. Their greatest strength is that they strive to promote positive relationships in a work group. Their greatest weakness is that they overlook performance issues, because they are afraid to deal with them. They are willing to bend rules and make exceptions for personal problems.

Strategies that may work: To work effectively with an Affiliative manager, you must be friendly and willing to engage in personal conversation. Make efforts to promote teamwork and cooperation in the work group. When you present a new idea, be sure to explain how you will avoid creating conflict with others.

What you should NEVER do: Be rude and unfriendly or intentionally hurt someone’s feelings. Act like a “lone wolf” and refuse to engage in collaboration with others.

Value System 5: Innovation & Development

Basic Beliefs: Developmental managers are focused on growth and change. They believe that everyone should continually strive to improve. Their greatest need is to continue learning, and their greatest fear is stagnation.

Motto: “Change is an opportunity, not a threat.”

Leadership Style: Developmental managers try to provide variety, challenge, and opportunities to learn. They get bored with the status quo, look for problems to solve, and enjoy finding new ways to do things. Their greatest strength is encouraging continuous improvement in both people and processes. Their greatest weakness is that they can wear people out with constant change.

Strategies that may work: To work effectively with a Developmental manager, you must be open to new ideas. Look for areas of improvement in the way work is done. Indicate interest in improving your own skills and knowledge. When your manager comes up with the fifteenth new idea of the week, listen with interest, then ask for help in prioritizing your activities.

What you should NEVER do: Immediately point out why a new idea will not work before considering the possible benefits.