The words “managing up” are often uncomfortable for a boss. It leads them to think their team is trying to control what they do or influence their behavior in nefarious ways.
Here’s what one boss said about a class called Managing Up.
“I’m uncomfortable with HR offering that one. Bosses don’t need to be managed; employees need to know how to work with us effectively. They need to know the best ways to communicate, understand what we have to deal, and how to follow-through on commitments. Stuff like that.”
Admittedly, I laughed. That was indeed the point of the class.
But it points to something important: managing up or working with your boss to get the best results, is one of the most important and misunderstood leadership skills.
Here are a couple definitions:
“Consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss and your organization.” Harvard Business Review
“…doing your part to create a productive and effective partnership with the person above you. It’s about helping the people above you succeed, which in turn helps you succeed…” Forbes
There isn’t one boss who would disagree with a team “managing up” to them under these definitions. This is a productive and beneficial skill for all. Here are two strategies.
Know Your Boss
This is probably the most important aspect of managing up-know your boss well. This is about understanding what motivates them, how they like to receive information, and what pressures they’re under. Here are some questions to consider:
When is your boss at their best, mornings or afternoons?
What stresses them? What annoys them?
What pressure are they under? What impact does their leader or the leaders above them have?
How do they like to receive information?
Are they process focused and like to know all the steps taken or are they results focused and prefer to not know details?
Knowing the answers to these questions helps you craft the best way to work with them. Examine your own style and how it is similar or different to theirs. This means you might need to change the way you work to get the best results.
For example, a Vice-President I used to work with was notorious for making fast decisions in the morning when his energy was fresh. As the day wore on, he gradually became more fatigued by the various fires that needed putting out. He built a reputation for saying no more often in the afternoon when he was tired. His team knew to bring him their ideas in the morning.
Another boss I know of always wanted advanced notice and documentation of any idea she was asked to decide upon. She processed information faster through reading. Her team learned to present their ideas to her in writing instead of verbally in meetings. This required more work for the team, to write up a memo, but the result they received from their boss was better.
What if you don’t know your boss well and don’t know the answers to those questions?
Be structured about it and schedule some time. Say, “I’d like to learn more about you and your work. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” And provide the questions in advance so the boss can prepare.
Or, be less structured and just look for casual times to get to know them better. You can also talk to others who work well with your boss. Ask them what strategies have made their work together successful.
The point is to understand your boss well, understand how that compares or contrasts with your own style, and adapt accordingly.
Inevitably you will disagree with your boss and the way that is handled can make or break your success. Just as you are exploring your boss’s work style and pressures, talk about disagreement too. At minimum, pay attention to how they respond to disagreement.
With the teams I work with, I advocate that they discuss disagreement and define a process for it before they ever disagree. That way, everyone knows what to do when disagreement comes up. For more guidance on defining a process, read Your Team Needs Conflict.
If disagreement comes up and you don’t have a process, here are some tips:
Prepare in advance: Think through your position and why it is important to you. What are you trying to accomplish and how does that align with the goals your boss has? Look for a common goal.
State your intent first. Make it clear to your boss that you are on the same team and striving toward the same goal. It might sound like: “I don’t want you to think I’m questioning your decision. I want you to know you have my support.”
Ask for their perspective. Seek out their goal or what they are trying to accomplish. Get a full picture of their intent before you share yours. It might sound like: “Can you tell me more about your perspective? What contributed to your decision? What is influencing it?”
Share your perspective and offer a solution: State your side, speaking from your perspective. Be specific and offer a possible solution. It might sound like. “From my side, the new policy will increase our workload. I fear that we will not be able to achieve the goal we defined. I have an idea that may help.”
Developing and maintaining a productive relationship with your boss is not only important for your own performance and job satisfaction but for theirs as well. Get to know your boss well. What made them the leader they are today? Then, start learning to adapt your style to theirs. It will pay off in the end.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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