This Wednesday I’ll be speaking for the Austin Association of Women in Communications. The topic, managing up, is one that most of us likely have had, are having, or will have experience with at one point or another.
Dozens of books and articles have been written about this topic. Working with You is Killing Me: Freeing Yourself from Emotional Traps at Work by Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster and Managing Up: 59 Ways to Build a Career-Advancing Relationship with Your Boss are just a couple of the books available. Simply Google the phrase “managing up” and you’ll find dozens of articles written on the subject.
Effectively managing up requires a specific set of skills, behaviors, and attitudes. That means you not only have to know how to manage up, you also have to be willing to do it, and it’s not always easy. There’s a ton of advice out there, and sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. If you’re struggling with a difficult boss, manager, or client, try these seven strategies to “manage up”:
1. Give them a break. One would assume that by the time someone gets into management, they would know how to lead, but that’s a false assumption. Most managers haven’t had formal management or leadership training. They were most likely put in the role because they had technical knowledge or tenure. It’s often a lack of skill, rather than desire that leads to poor management style.
2. Understand it is not intentional. The fundamental attribution error theory explains that we often blame other people’s faults and shortcomings on deep-rooted character flaws, whereas we excuse our own faults on temporary environmental factors. For example, my boss snapped at me because she’s a cruel, mean person. However, I snapped at my co-worker because I’m working on 2-hours sleep, and I’m exhausted and stressed. Basically, we judge others on their behavior, but we judge ourselves on our intention. When in doubt, assume that his/her intent was positive.
3. Be the solution. Being in middle management is one of the toughest roles in the organization. If you’re in a management position, chances are, you catch crap from every direction. You’ve got to deal with complaints and problems from the people who report to you, as well as the people you report to. If you really want to manage up, learn to be part of the solution, not the problem. That means if you’re going to bring up a problem, you should be prepared to offer a couple of solutions as well.
4. Manage your response. You might not be able to control what happens, but you can certainly control the way you react and respond. If your manager says or does something that makes you cringe, it doesn’t mean you have to verbally or nonverbally express that frustration. Take time to process your emotions. If a conversation needs to occur, make sure it’s after you’ve had time to cool down.
5. Own it. You can spend all of your time and energy frustrated that your manager isn’t fulfilling his/her “managerial responsibilities” or you can choose to take ownership and do what you can to mitigate their shortcomings. Is it fair that the responsibility falls on you? Does it matter? Being frustrated isn’t going to fix the situation. At the end of the day, you are the only one you can control.
6. Know your role. From the time we’re a child, we all fall into to playing certain roles. Authors Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster cite several. They explain that no role is problematic unless it is in some way limiting you. They describe the hero (first to arrive, last to leave and always seems to have the answer), the caretaker (office counselor and emotional support specialist), rebel (non- conormist who challenges everything), the martyr (the professional sufferer), the entertainer (joke teller extraordinaire), the peacemaker (office diplomat), and the invisible one (who?). Have you taken on a role that may be limiting you or your potential? We fall into the trap of playing these roles, often to our detriment.
7. Know your boss’ priorities. Trying to offer to help your boss, manager, or client accomplish their priorities is one of the best ways to be perceived as positive and helpful. The best way to know their priorities is to meet regularly. Give frequent status updates and ask often what you can do to best help your boss. While it might seem like kissing-up, it’s really just managing up.
What do all of these strategies have in common? They all require some work on your part, and they are all things in your control. Managing up requires managing your expectations, behavior, and approach. While there’s no such thing as a perfect boss or manager, try these strategies to significantly improve your relationship. If you already have a good relationship, be grateful and offer some positive feedback. It never hurts to say thank you.