Managing upwards can relieve you of a great deal of stress and will ensure that you are working for your career and the greater good. By Tim Pegler
Do you have a problem with bosses? Although it is often easy to spot managers weaknesses and blame them for your own professional malaise, it is more confronting to look within and ask what you are contributing to that relationship.
Perhaps we’re all conditioned from caveman times to accept that, what the thug with the biggest club says goes, without question.
With companies tending to move to flatter structures with fewer levels of middle management, workers have fewer layers to manage upwards through.
Many struggle to respect their bosses (while bordering on worshipping others). For those who fall into this category, it is a good idea to change the approach. The difference between an occasionally adversarial and under-productive relationship with a supervisor, and a mutually successful arrangement, usually lies in how an employee manages their dealings with the boss; “managing” your manager can have great benefits for your career.
The basic rules for dealing with bosses might be simple but, for the average worker, managing the immediate superior isn’t usually a strategy that springs to mind as a way to enhance professional life. The hierarchical structure of many companies has led many to forget this key survival skill. Yet according to David Reynolds, general manager of TMP Worldwide, a human-resources consultancy, the flattening of organisational hierarchies has increased the need for employees to handle the boss. “It is more important because, with organisations being flattened, there is not the traditional lines of communication for managing. It means there is more responsibilities for employees to manage upwards.”
Reynolds says it is also important to assess the organisation itself; some enterprises make managing the boss easier than others. “It depends on the organisation’s way of measuring performance. Organisations with structured management performance processes are more likely to be aware of it. Especially when the performance management processes are driven by the employee.”
Reynolds estimates that about one in four organisations have employee-driven performance assessment processes. “First, (an employee) has to have to have the courage to take ownership. That is the biggest barrier. Managers also have to create communication flows both ways.”
Another proposition is that humans have been conditioned from caveman times to accept that, what the thug with the biggest club says goes, without question. Well, maybe so. But the way you manage your dealings with the clan chief can certainly determine how often the club swings in your direction. Get it right and the club might ultimately end up in your hands.
Therein lies the first truth to managing your manager: you’re well on the way if you manage yourself effectively. Managing yourself, of course, requires some self-analysis. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How can you best use these strengths and how can you build on them and be more effective?
The national president of the Australian Association of Career Counsellors, Judith Leeson, says that workers who take control of their own career development “will be in a better position to understand and contribute to the workplace”.
Leeson says that managing your own career and career development puts the power back in your hands. You don’t rely on others to manage you, and can confidently identify your contribution to your company and areas where you need development so that you can be even more of an asset.
Managing yourself involves taking responsibility for all aspects of your job. What are the key indicators by which your performance will be judged? Are you satisfied with your achievements on all these criteria? There’s not a lot of point actively managing your manager if you’re not performing your own job adequately. Make sure that your own laundry is clean before you turn your eyes to that of others.
Management guru Peter Drucker suggests that part of knowing yourself is looking backwards and examining what you have achieved. “Every time you do something that is important, write down what you expect will happen,” he counsels. By tracking the results, after a fixed period, you will be able to check the hits and misses and get a fair indication of your strengths.
When you are confident that you are performing strongly in your position, you may see opportunities for improving efficiency and output. You may need certain resources to do so, educational courses to enhance your knowledge or, possibly, you might just need direction or decisions from above. The boss can usually help in this. This is where skilfully managing upwardly, or being pro-active rather than passive in dealing with your manager, becomes vital.
Once again, though it may seem simple to state it, if you are to have a mutually beneficial relationship with your supervisor, you need to know their strengths and weaknesses, as much as your own. Is your boss a poor communicator, for instance? If so, you need to adjust your own approach. If you are unsure what is expected of you, ask. If you’re still uncertain, clarify. Never assume that you know what a poor communicator wants. Rechecking your direction regularly means you are less likely to waste time on a misunderstanding and are covered should your boss change their mind or expectations.
Get to know the boss
It’s also useful to know the boss’s personality and preferences. Short of sitting down with them and employing a profiling tool such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, this comes down to careful observation during contact with your supervisor. Do they delegate and trust their subordinates to make the right decisions without review, or do they like to be involved and consulted on the minutiae of every company action? Do they like the facts presented in a short, sharp report that allows them to sign off on a matter quickly, or do they require extensive backgrounding so that they can then report to the board? Managing upwardly means knowing the preferences of your boss and tailoring your efforts accordingly. Tell them what they need to know to do their job.
The next level of requisite knowledge for managing your manager pertains to the goals, pressures and key performance indicators with which they are dealing. Much of this information should be obvious in your company, but it can sometimes be useful to read your company’s annual report to get a global view.
Armed with an awareness of the tasks facing your supervisor, you can make an assessment, based on your own strengths about what you can do to make a difference. A smart tactic is to aim always to provide your manager with solutions, not problems. That is, if you have negative information to pass upwards, seek options for tackling that information and present your boss with research that makes it easier for them to act.
Another pressure on your manager may simply be limited time. If this is so, you can upwardly manage by ensuring that you manage your share of this time well. Don’t waste it with trifling matters and make sure that all meetings tackle priority issues only.
The chief executive of Occupational Services Australia, Simon Brown-Greaves, says this can be invaluable to a manager. “When I think about the times I am most grateful for what an employee has done, it’s often when they have not handballed, but have brought good judgment to bear on what is essential. “I do not want a whole cartload of information to deal with. So, when the middle rungs of management exercise judgment and hand up an opinion, in my experience that can be very helpful. Mind you, the opinion always has more impact if the people have a batting average or proven success rate of more than 75% on the opinions they offer.”
Brown-Greaves says that staff presenting well-reasoned and researched information upwards will always be appreciated. “An ability to get to the guts of the matter quickly is about efficient use of my time as well as efficient use of their own.”
An ability to sum up a situation also implies an honest approach to your boss. As previously stated, bosses need sufficient information from you to do their job effectively; and this means the truth. If a deadline is unrealistic, they need to know and they need to know why. If you believe that they have made an incorrect decision, you need to say so, furnishing the evidence to support your stance.
“Concentrate on the issues and not on the person,” Leeson says. “Look for ways of effecting a positive outcome. There is nothing wrong with disagreeing or criticising, if you can offer something better or well argued in its place. Bad news should be delivered as simply as possible, but with the opportunity to talk it through and to find positive outcomes and further options.” Indeed, failure to pass on critical information effectively means you are partly responsible for the consequences.
This brings us to another aspect of managing upwards: attitude. It can be useful as an employee to remember that your boss needs you, and your relationship is one of what some management theorists refer to as “mutual dependence”. Bearing this in mind changes the traditional workplace power balance and gives you a sense of control: your boss is a conduit to achieving your career goals. Your boss is a colleague. You have a shared interest in the wellbeing of your company. For those of you reading and thinking, “that’s easy for you to say”, such mutuality is becoming increasingly relevant in the modern workplace. The days of the passive employee are numbered.
Consider this: chief executives tend to have shorter tenure now, coming and going according to their performances on strict targets set by boards reporting to hungry shareholders with high expectations. Workers are increasingly likely to be self-employed contractors stepping in to help out with short-term needs, or part-timers less willing to donate the pounds of flesh that full-time wage slaves have traditionally relinquished. Workplaces are evolving and office dynamics with them.
Brown-Greaves says: “As people become more portable in their careers, the Me.com generation really does exist. Contractors and part-timers are learning much more about dealing with employers and contracts and part of that is about managing upwards effectively.
“They don’t see themselves as underlings or employees. They walk in the door, do their job and leave. Managing upwards is much more negotiation based and commercial. People are not as spooked by going into the CEO’s office as in the past. They’re almost a legion of mini-CEOs. They treat themselves as bosses, so the power dynamic has changed.”
The boss’s view
With companies tending to move to flatter structures with fewer levels of middle management, workers have fewer layers to manage upwards through; so, being able to relate confidently to supervisors is vital.
Brown-Greaves says this new dynamic brings with it lessons for senior executives. “Clearly, while labor is in demand in some sectors, workplaces tend to be less settled and workforce turnover may be about the relationship between management and staff.
“Incentive and loyalty schemes don’t work as well in the workplace because these workers set their own rewards. The intimidation factor does not work as well any more either. If you are going to be a successful boss, being accessible is a critical characteristic, as is being consultative. You also need to be extremely assertive, because you’re exposing yourself to a broader range of inputs from below.”
Melbourne-based organisational psychologist and Australian Psychological Society spokesman Dr Peter Cotton says the trend towards flatter organisations and working in teams means that “leadership functions are being diffused and, in that context, staff have an increased role in a lot of decision making that occurs”.
“Managers are also increasingly struggling with workloads and balancing family demands. So, increased input from a number of staff is often necessary.”
Despite the likelihood of more frequent contact with supervisors, Dr Cotton says that the first priority remains managing yourself.
“More and more people are on performance-based contracts and are being told in a lot of large organisations that they do not have a career for life. So, you have to actively manage your own career and career progression,” he says.
Leeson agrees: “Workplaces are changing rapidly, staff turnover is much higher, there is no “job for life”, and loyalty is a thing of the past. Thus, cultivating a relationship with your manager is likely to be counter-productive as people move on rapidly now.
“Manage your own career path, and the rest should take care of itself. Each individual needs to develop a portfolio of skills, experiences, and strengths transferable to other positions. Understand the global changes in the world of work, and look for the opportunities that change can bring.”
Harvard Business School professors John Gabarro and John Kotter remind us in Managing Your Boss that truly effective managers handle relationships with colleagues ranked above, below and beside them, equally well. Gabarro and Kotter found that managing upwardly was crucial to success.
But at the heart of their work are some shockingly simple truths: forget your ambition and income and focus on being effective in your job. Chances are, to be truly effective, you’ll find a mutually respectful, understanding relationship with your boss invaluable.
Distinguishing features: Likely to be surrounded by sycophants, who circle like satellites at social functions, creating an impassable barrier to critics. Often appoints middle managers who tell them what they want to hear.
Suggested tactics: Flattery. Research in the United States has shown that this works. A University of Michigan psychologist has concluded that schmoozing can nudge you ahead of someone equally competent; and a Bryant College professor has calculated that flatterers have a 5% edge over non-flatterers when it comes to pay review time.
If flattery ain’t your forte, ensure your performance is so good that your boss can’t ignore you. They will soon realise that they look even better with you around.
The Control Freak
Distinguishing features: Wants reports on everything, down to who left the office lights on over the weekend. Delegates, but expects to be consulted on decisions and will often overrule just to flex their muscles.
Suggested tactics: Cross your “t s” and dot your “i s”; attention to detail will be respected. Present reasoned reports about any issue on which are making decisions. You may ultimately say something to the effect that “for these reasons, I suggest you recommend…”, and the boss will feel the decision is theirs.
Distinguishing features: Never in the office due to interstate or overseas travel, mysterious meetings or golf. Delegates to a herd of middle managers who often have to guess what is wanted of them.
Suggested tactics: Don’t bother trying to achieve a rapport. If you need a relationship to feel secure, establish it with their personal assistant.
If you do secure a rare slice of the Enigma’s time, make sure that you are well prepared and efficient. Don’t bother with small talk; explain what you need to get on with your job and present packaged solutions that only need a signature.
The Ideas Man/Woman
Distinguishing features: Has got to their present ranking by generating ideas and enthusiasm. Likely to be loud and experience mood swings. Often not great on the small things that keep companies running. Too busy conceptualising to approve expenditure or read long reports.
Suggested tactics: If you need to pour cold water on an idea, do so in a non-emotive way. Couch your feedback to show that the boss’s ideas were strong but that circumstances have forced a new approach.
Take some risks and raise ideas. This takes courage, but often the “How about we look at it this way ?” question can get others creative juices flowing and hopefully, bring you plaudits. Always be armed with a well-thought-out idea.
Distinguishing features: Makes an effort to know you and likes to chat in the bathroom or lift. Will see through sycophants. Expects loyalty and hard work. May react badly if you consider a job elsewhere. Can catch you off-guard with negative feedback, but is usually fair.
Suggested tactics: Don’t put them on a pedestal. Treat the chummy boss as a fallible colleague. Be honest and be prepared to disagree. If you have an issue with a colleague, build a case and be careful how you raise it. This boss is loyal to everyone they hire but comes down hard on anyone who’s not a team player.
The New-Age Thinker
Distinguishing features: A convert to all sorts of management theories, ranging from open floor plans to “unblock” communication, to paint schemes that boost productivity. Doesn’t react well to cynics.
Suggested tactics: Focus. Don’t be distracted by the scattergun theories from above. Get your job done. Don’t be afraid to quote terminology back at the boss but be careful you don’t look like an unbeliever. Read up on other recent theories and tackle the boss armed with material helpful to your cause.
There are hundreds of other boss species out there, some of whom belong to rare or multiple categories. The trick to managing them is to take stock of their strengths and weaknesses and act accordingly.