Managing up is an important way to cultivate relationships that allow you to be more effective at work. If you think about a frustrating relationship you have in your working life, are you focused on making it more effective, or on being liked? In the last segment we looked at the things that can get in the way of being able to build a healthy relationship with our boss, which were also all things we control. Our judgment, bias, expectations and compassion. Strong relationships are often thought to be built on likeability, but in fact they are built on mutual respect and trust (and if you happen to like each other, that is a bonus). So, making it about the work you’re both invested in, and the organization you both support, will help you to build something healthy in this reporting relationship.
Trust is present when there is mutual respect. Here again, it may be tempting to think that if someone likes you then there is mutual respect. Usually, but did you know you can cultivate mutual respect without actually liking someone? When you make it about the work, and what you share through the act of providing your expertise, skills and abilities (and less about whether or not you have anything personally in common with this individual), there will be enough common ground to build something together through your work. A professional and personal connection is important to build over time, but when that isn’t easily present, start with the work and build from there.
You may not like the way your boss provides feedback, or he/she may have an interpersonal style that sets your teeth on edge. Mutual respect is about having the difficult conversations necessary to cut through the ways of working that stand between you and this other person. You can only control yourself, but that also means you have to consider how to speak to your boss about any misunderstandings or ways that aren’t working. You will be able to do this with more success if you can start with respecting your boss. If respect isn’t present, then you are unlikely to find the approach, or the words, to maintain, or further, your working relationship together. Bosses have a very tough job; often there is a lot of pressure, and office politics you as an employee can’t/shouldn’t see. Ever work for a boss who was so transparent with you that it was demoralizing? Yup, a good boss will balance what employees see and experience in their work with being healthily transparent, but that doesn’t always mean he/she will be perfect.
Be compassionate with your boss, and in so doing, be willing to have a non-judgmental conversation with her/him about what is, and is not, working in your relationship. Remember, it’s about ensuring you have what you need to be more effective at work, so think about what you would like to say with that frame in mind. It can make the difference between telling your boss he/she is being too hard on you, and letting your boss know what is helpful to include in her/his feedback to you to get the results you both want. One is about your emotions (and immediately makes things personal), the other is about being as effective as possible in the work (and comes from a position of mutual respect).
“…understand what your boss’s agenda is, helping them reach their key goals is an outstanding way to get their attention in a very positive way. Solutions, not problems.” – Karl Moore, McGill University Professor
This is the first in a three-part series of blogs to support building this key skill, and your influence, at work.
Managing up is an important skill to cultivate in today’s working environment, but it is also fraught with concern about authenticity and career-limiting-moves. If you’ve ever worked for a boss you just couldn’t seem to connect with, you know exactly what I mean. So, how can you manage up without blowing it? The first thing to note is you only control yourself. You may be as professional, collaborative, conciliatory and supportive as you possibly can be, and still not foster the type of relationship you’d hoped for with your manager.
Fortunately, we often end up working with a boss we can connect with, which is what makes it more difficult when we have to work harder at forming a relationship with someone we don’t. I’ve worked with many clients who sacrificed their self-esteem on the altar of “likeability”, it is a soul-shredding process. Here is the truth, you and the people you work with are not always going to like each other (even with the best intentions). We are all different and unique; to quote an esteemed colleague “You can’t like everyone, it would be weird if you did”. Many of us feel, especially in reporting relationships, that we should like the people we depend on in our work. It certainly makes life a lot easier, but it isn’t realistic. Over the span of your 40+ year career, you are going to work with a lot of people you don’t enjoy, and from time-to-time that will include your boss. Here is the tricky bit, forging healthy working relationships anyway, based on what is possible. This is the crux of managing up.
What this requires of you is a lot of emotional management. This person, whom you feel uncomfortable talking to, or working with, is as deserving of your best as anyone else (assuming they are not a toxic person). When we decided that someone is “lesser than” us, because of a character flaw we assign to them, then there can be no healthy relationship. This means understanding your judgement, naming it, and seeing how it supports, or sabotages, your ability to build a relationship with this person. What you want to do is leave the relationship door open enough to slowly build trust, looking for both what is possible and what is healthy in this relationship (a wise step to take even when you really like your boss).
This involves empathy. Being able to put yourself in another person’s shoes, including your bosses’, is hard work, but it is necessary for building a healthy working relationship. Examine your own biases about this person; what are they? Are they conditional (“If you support my work, I’ll support yours…”)? The best bosses will challenge your thinking from time to time, so that “condition” won’t build a healthy relationship. Name your biases. Then spend some time putting yourself in your bosses’ shoes; is he/she an introvert, or an extrovert? New to managing people? A “hands on” or a “hands off” leadership style? Is he/she a subject-matter-expert (SME) in what your team does, or in something else? What kind of demands, or pressure, does her/his job entail (and yours doesn’t)? Getting curious about your boss and what matters most to him/her is a healthy step towards being able to better understand her/him in their work with you.
Nothing I’ve outlined above is easy or light work, but it doesn’t take long to do when you give yourself some dedicated time to sit and reflect. Going into reflection with the intention to be open and compassionate with another person, to see what is possible (rather than what you assumed, expected or hoped for) is the starting point to managing up.
The only person you control is yourself and that makes you the best place to start.
“The goal of managing upward up is not to curry favor… it’s about being more effective.”
~ Liz Simpson, Harvard Business School
Most of us have some type of ritual, in additional to our normal routine; routine is about getting things done …ritual is about caring for yourself. Ritual is something we need because it allows us to move into our work with more confidence, or comfort. As an example, my morning ritual is spending 10 minutes sitting comfortably in the silence of my still-sleeping household while holding my coffee cup, enjoying the warmth of it in my hands. Sitting quietly for this measure of time is something I really look forward to each and every day – I do this on the weekends too. All else can fall apart in my morning routine, but I’m OK if I get to have my quiet coffee moment – it sets me up for success in my work day in ways my routine just can’t.
Different parts of our day may have ritual in it, and we don’t even know it. While I was working in a corporate setting, I had someone to eat lunch with each day, and when she was transferred to another location, I really missed that time together, and the constancy of doing something that was a good break from work. After she moved, I ate lunch at my desk, and I had to reflect on why my afternoons seemed so long. Ritual can energize us, give us the permission we need to both take a well-deserved break and enjoy it.
Rituals are important anchor points that allow us to gently move into “what is next”. My favorite late-afternoon ritual at work is to close down for the day, tidying up my desk, amending my “to do” list, and (the best part), hearing the “snuck” sound my computer makes as it closes for the night. That sound lets me close all the work “tabs” that are open in my mind, letting my thoughts turn elsewhere. I can embrace the commute home, shifting into an evening routine filled with loved ones and other tasks that keep our busy household going. When this ritual is disrupted (i.e. I leave work early or I am not in the office at the end of the day), I find my mind cluttered with lots of details and intellectual debris from my work-day, which impacts how present I can be for my family in the evenings.
Take a look at your day, what rituals do you have that help support self-care, balance or peace of mind? If you look, you’ll find them (even if you may not have called them rituals). A ritual has positive impact in our day when we do it intentionally, letting it give us that break, or the opportunity to re-set. One person’s ritual can be another person’s obligation, so these are highly individualized ways of supporting ourselves in our days, no two are alike but all can provide a meaningful pause from our labours.
As John Hench said “We don't have too much ritual in our life anymore. And these life symbols which people rely on to keep their feeling of well-being, that life is not too bad after all, are required more and more.”
Embrace the rituals in your day.
Expectations are really fascinating; they exist silently in our psyche, hidden from conscious view. They are sometimes so quiet you may not even know an expectation is in play; you might sense that something isn’t quite right, it may feel unnecessarily stressful (and you’re not sure why). Our expectations of others are often more visible to us, and still manage to cause the same complications when they are not being met. Unmet expectations (our own, or others of us) breed the conditions for us to react (rather than respond) to what we are experiencing. Reactions really mess with our sense of self and well-being. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could make these hidden expectations more visible? We can.
Enter mathematics. Stay with me, you are not going to do any actual math, but there is a mathematical concept we learned in grade school that flushes out a hidden expectation before it causes emotional upheaval. It is “greater than”, “lesser than” and “equal to”. Here’s how it can help. Begin by taking a few deep breaths to settle yourself into quiet contemplation; then look at your work day, consider the people you will be meeting with today, and then ask yourself “Do I feel ‘greater than’, ‘lesser than’ or ‘equal to’ this person?” The answers may surprise you.
When we feel “greater than” someone it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You may be training a new employee and so your knowledge and experience in your working environment is “greater than” theirs. However, there are times we feel “greater than” in a not-so-great way, like when you think of someone as “beneath” you …possibly when you see someone as very different from you (i.e. less mature etc.). In what circumstances does your less-than-great “greater than” show up at work? What expectations are woven into this belief? How might you be experienced when you feel “greater than” someone?
Feeling “lesser than” someone at work is a very stressful circumstance. Feeling this way often sets self-expectations that are rigid, like “don’t screw up”, designed to help us move through interactions with this person …and impossible to meet. There may be many reasons why someone makes you feel “lesser than”; they may be an abrasive, or a toxic person. They may be a very nice person, and you’ve just psyched yourself out. At work, titles can often do this; I remember years ago meeting with a CEO for the first time at a job interview and feeling all kinds of “lesser than”. She was really nice. I did not get the job. It’s hard to showcase your strengths when you are feeling “lesser than”. Do you need to feel this way? What expectations are behind this belief? How well does this belief serve you in your work?
When you experience “equal to” it is a much different experience. There is often confidence, and trust, in these relationships. Check in here, are any expectations present? We don’t often hold rigid expectations within relationships where we feel “equal to”. We don’t need to, we have built relationships that are mutually satisfying in “equal to”. These relationships can be with best friends, or casual acquaintances, and they support well-being. However, if there is a change to the context of these relationships, the relationship (and your expectations of it) need to be re-navigated (and possibly even re-negotiated). As an example, when you are promoted at work, and your friend is not (or vice-versa).
Applying this mathematical concept to your relationships can proactively “flush out” any hidden expectations you may have, allowing you to work on key connections, helping them to grow towards “equal to” and empowering well-being, for yourself and others, at work.
“My happiness grows in direct proportion to my acceptance, and in inverse proportion to my expectations.” - Michael J. Fox
Nothing preoccupies us more than the state of not knowing. Some part of each and every day is devoted to the unending task of making the unknown, known (in ways big and small). Unable to see if we can plan something in our future (“Will I get the time off work?”). Not being sure if we can count on something (“Will they deliver what they’ve committed to on time?”). Not understanding how you are perceived by others (“Am I liked and respected in my work?”) can be very draining. We seek comfort in the familiar, in what is clear.
Along the way our path is paved by small certainties, to capture the elusive “big” certainties in life. For example, we make decisions based on what we know to be true (even if it turns out we misunderstood or misjudged something). We form opinions based on understanding, but also on judgments and assumptions. We venture carefully into the unknown from the security of the known, and expect that the light we carry with us will always illuminate what we need to move forward safely and to achieve our intended outcomes. Often certainty demands a strategic focusing of that light in order to see clearly what it is we are trying to understand.
In focusing that light (from a flood light to a beam), we make irrelevant many things, not always to our advantage because certainty is something we need to balance very carefully, for it gives us both favourable and unfavorable results. Certainty of opinion can be useful to others, when we are teaching, guiding or being our best selves. It can also be divisive, laying the foundations for judgment. Being certain of something can be a restful state, but not when it can only be maintained at the expense of another; every major conflict in the world has been based on someone’s certainty that they were right. Certainty can become a demanding taskmaster that forces us to trample on our own values and principles in order to maintain the assuredness we have become overly attached to (or overly identified with).
We reach for certainty frequently when we are afraid; what that fear is depends on the circumstance. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being right. Fear of losing something you value. If you think about all the emotional and circumstantial states you want to avoid, the list is really quite endless. This is why (from time to time) looking at your motivations to reach certainty allows you to see what is driving this need. There is a wealth of information here that can help you to better know and understand yourself so you can make decisions from a place of wisdom and compassion (even when things are still uncertain). By holding on to something too tightly we destroy that which we seek to embrace. We need to balance our need for certainty with the impact we have on ourselves and others. Be open to what uncertainty has to teach you. Be curious as to why a need to know is asserting itself at this time, and then choose kindness, first towards yourself and then towards others.
“Uncertainty is a natural and guaranteed part of life. A journey isn’t intended to be seen from a birds-eye view. It’s rather meant to be lived in the moment through our own experiences. We don’t need to know what lies beyond what’s right in front of us. We’ll reach it eventually, in the right time.”
I came across a quote on Linked In the other day and it landed with a gut-punch; “Don’t limit your challenges, challenge your limits” (Jerry Dunn). It perfectly, and succinctly, describes a very human reaction to being (or trying not to be) overwhelmed. All at once I could feel the energy I used to resist anything that was even remotely disruptive, and what it cost me to be so fixated on protecting the status quo. Curiosity, growth and well-being become collateral damage when our first response is one of resistance. How much of the energy we use in a day is directed towards reducing disruption, protecting future well-being, at the cost of our well-being in the present?
A large part of this is driven by assumptions and expectations. It sounds like this: “Nope, no thank-you I cannot take on anything further right now, I am barely managing with what I have now. Thank-you, goodbye.” It’s a lot like chasing a door-to-door salesperson off your door-step, you aren’t even listening to what they have to say, you just want them to go away. Trying to stay ahead of whatever challenges interrupt your day (so they cause no more time-suck, de-motivation, or loss of focus) is an unforgiving process; meaning it just never ends…and it doesn’t actually work. It assumes you are always at a limit of some kind.
Once disrupted, you cannot un-disrupt yourself. The resistance you throw up to counter the challenge is often more disruptive and demanding than listening thoughtfully to the challenge in the first place, and being at your “limit” has a nasty side effect – it disconnects you from being your best self…from being fully present and open to what is really going on. We forget that listening, being open to what is going on is not the same as saying “yes” to more work or to being overly accommodating. What listening does give you are options. Listening means you have more information, and then you can consider it for action, allowing you to see not only disruption, but understand what may in fact be an opportunity.
Challenging your limits sounds a lot like embracing chaos, but it is less about being so open you overwhelm yourself, and more about being fully present in your work, so you can be more understanding with what is happening, because opportunity is often disguised as a challenge. You can miss that next great career move, or damage a valuable connection, without meaning to when you operate from a place that feels at the edge of your limits. When you’ve listened, been open to exploring, you are no longer teeter on an edge, but giving yourself room to maneuver. And if you do need to say “no” you will be more credible and more compassionate in doing so, keeping your relationships intact, possibly even strengthening them. Challenging your limits means you pause long enough to understand what it is all about before deciding what to do.
“We don’t grow when things are easy; we grow when we face challenges” ~ Anonymous
Stress. Pressure. Tension. Worry. Nerves. Whatever you call it, as beautiful human beings we’ve got it in all sizes and colours. A never-ending supply. Stress is a two-sided coin; on the one side it is an early warning and guidance system to ensure we attend to the things that matter most. On the other side it is expectations of ourselves on steroids, with no basis in reality. Wait! How does that happen?
We cannot eject stress completely from our lives; the parts of our bodies that generate stress do so for many important and good reasons. From being our moral compass to ensuring we stay tuned in to what is happening around us, (both physically and emotionally) these parts need to exist. Cortisol, adrenaline and the neural pathways that trigger them are unconscious and autonomous – to put it more simply…stress happens.
If we become better at naming stress when it is present, then we have a tool to manage it before it manages us. Think back to a stressful time in your week, how did your body feel? As an example, my blood pressure goes up, just enough to make the ring on my hand feel tight, my brain moves at a million rpms. Stress is in the house! Unlike fear, you cannot take stress out for coffee, and you cannot dance with stress either. Stress is situational, so you need to counter the energy it brings with kindness and compassion. You need to sit with stress, slow it down. This is an intentional act, deep, slow breathes are a great way to start. Once you have named it and started the process of de-escalating your body, you are in a better position to find well-being in the midst of it.
The next step is to attend to the story you are telling yourself about the stressful circumstance. If you have just received extra work files to complete from your boss, it’s understandable to have a narrative of “Why me?”. Sit with this for a moment and look a little deeper; is your body also responding to a silent narrative of “OMG, now they will find out I really can’t do this job!!!!”? This is very important to pay attention to, because this type of narrative creates a circumstance where you don’t feel you can ask for help. So, in addition to stress undermining your best self, it further prevents you from using your common sense, and your voice, to alleviate the problem, causing even more stress. Find out what you may be saying silently to yourself (think of it as the problem underneath the problem).
Deep breathing can help, but so can looking at a different perspective. Ask yourself “What’s the best that could happen?”. We can’t be positive all the time, that is not what this is about (no lipstick on pigs). This is a simple question meant to start your thinking in a new way that allows you to attend to what is most important in this situation. When we see something from a different perspective, we access more of what is needed to attend to it, and that is what you are really after. These are important steps to support yourself in your work, because when you are kinder to yourself you think clearer, and that may include advocating for yourself; “Love to look after these files, let’s discuss what needs to move off my plate in the short-term to make this happen.”
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem”
~ Captain Jack Sparrow
Strong emotions come in many disguises. I’ve spoken in the past about feeling fear, and how taking my fears out for a cup of coffee is an effective way to step into this strong emotion, exploring it in an objective way. There are other strong emotions, and while I have tried to take them out for coffee too, that hasn’t proven as effective as it is with my fears. Take my “worst-self” as an example. Petty, resentful, judgmental and gripping a burning need to be right, my “worst-self” emerges by flinging emotions at me like a toddler emptying a toy box. Fast, furious and fueled by righteous indignation (or fault-finding glee) there is less opportunity here to shift the pace and sit down for a cuppa (the caffeine would probably make things worse anyway). So, what to do?
Acknowledging when my worst self is emerging (or right here) is key, so is doing it without judgement. You cannot jettison these emotions, they love a good “street fight” and are pre-packed with reserves of energy, which means judgment, self-recrimination, etc. just feeds them (and they are hungry). These emotions have the strength to beat your best self into a coma. It took me some time to realize that the energetic quality of these emotions meant I needed a different approach. When these emotions are present, I feel it; my body becomes larger, I take up more physical and emotional space, leaning in, tight neck muscles, arms and hands pulsing into the space around me. Finger pointing. That’s usually when I become aware; I see my own finger flashing about like a sword. What does your “worst-self” feel like to you? No judgment, we all have one.
Which is the key. “Worst-self” shows up for a reason. These emotions, while a reaction (rather than a response) are trying desperately to tell you something, they just don’t have the words. Use their energy, their fire, and invite them to dance. Name them one by one as you tango, look them right in the eye and discern what they are trying to tell you as you traverse the floor in a complicated mix of sensuous, intimate, steps. Listen to what they express without becoming attached, because underneath all that reactionary self-expression is something that needs your kind and loving attention. You were hurt, ignored or hindered for too long; you benefit from exploring what this is doing to your well-being with compassion, wisdom and energy. Your “worst-self” is about giving you agency, permission (albeit in a passionately unskilled way).
Sweaty but satisfied your “worst-self” cedes the floor with a bow, letting you take it from here. What did you care so deeply about that you had a physical response to its presence (or absence)? What is it now calling on you to attend to in a gentle and kind way? Thank your “worst-self” for taking you out of your comfort zone, and know you’ve got this (it no longer has you).
“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful… This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”
~ Agnes De Mille
One of my intentions this year is to practice gratitude. It’s a simple intention, but one that demands a degree of mindfulness; I write down what I am grateful for once a day. Five minutes a day (more if I want to) to write down one thing. I’ve kept it simple. The benefit I am getting from this practice isn’t gratitude alone (and can I just say WOW, that is proving to be really powerful), it is the conversation I have with myself when I say I don’t have the time to do it.
The richness in this conversation is self-awareness, because it forces me to explain to myself why I don’t have five minutes to do something that I know is of direct benefit to me and indirect benefit to everyone around me. I go through all the usual side-steps. I get angry with myself for the impertinence of the question (“Seriously! Can’t you see how overwhelmed I am with work right now?”). I justify my actions (“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I will do it later!”). I agree with myself with no intention to follow through (“Yes, yes, yes, I know writing what I am grateful for today is highly beneficial…”). Or I avoid the feelings of failing myself through numbing out with screen time (the easier it is not to hear my better self who is annoyingly right).
Yes, I am a human being. And so are you. Go through the reactions that all of us beautiful human beings have when we are trying to over-ride common sense (whatever they may sound like for you) and then be compassionate with yourself, listening to your mental narrative. In my example you can hear that I may be working hard (do I need a break?), that I am annoyed with myself (hmmm…what is that all about?) or that I am dismissive…of myself (OK, red flag here to explore). This is important, because if we do not have these conversations with ourselves, we miss out on valuable insights that can help us better attend to our own needs, our awareness and our welfare. This is the critical point where our happiness is either supported or sacrificed; it is in these conversations that we choose ourselves and our well-being (or leave ourselves as collateral damage in a life we live for others but not ourselves).
It is not what you are promising to yourself per se, it is in the way you attend to that promise. As you move into this New Year, become less concerned about the number of times you did the thing you promised yourself you would do and be more open and curious about why you didn’t do it. It is in these conversations that you will grow and make this year your best yet. Miraculously you may find you also honour your commitments to yourself, in a joyous and heartfelt way, without pressure. The first promise we should always keep is the one we make to ourselves.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
Robert Frost, excerpt from the poem “Stopping by The Woods on A Snowy Evening”
For 2019 I am going with a simple commitment to practice daily gratitude. I’m looking for all the benefits the science tells me I can access when gratitude is more present in my life. But there is a catch. When we approach something like gratitude it is easy to “check this box”. In order for gratitude to truly provide the scientific benefits to our well-being that we seek we need to attend to it in a mindful way, one that involves more than just listing something for which we are grateful. We need to feel it and to know it. True gratitude is expressed through our head, our heart and our intuition. Tapping into all three of those areas takes a bit of time, not a long time, but intentional time. Here is an example.
On my first day of writing down something I was grateful for I listed “I am grateful for my warm and comfortable home”. Done. 10 seconds. Wow, this commitment was going to be a snap to keep! Not so fast. As I look back through what I have written so far, all of the things I’ve noted sound good, but I am not writing this for others, I am writing this for myself, and those items are also sounding quite hollow to my ears. We get better at doing things with practice and this is one of those times for me. I sat down with my book and really thought about what I had written and then something interesting came up.
While I am truly grateful for my warm and comfortable home, it is not what really matters to me. When I paused and really thought about it, I am grateful for the ability to care for and create a warm and cozy home. When I unpacked that, there was depth to it. I have not always had the mobility I enjoy today, and that meant my home was cluttered and unkempt as a busy household will quickly become when one of the adult members is side-lined. I also realized that as time goes on our house of three floors will not always meet our family’s needs; we may want to down-size or live without stairs. This is a likely reality in the distant future, but I know that a house is more then it’s architecture, and I feel confident that wherever we live we can create the kind of spaces we enjoy living in, in all stages of our lives.
I am grateful for everything that enables me to have a warm and cozy home, my health, my employment, my creativity, my family. In acknowledging all of that my head, heart and intuition are now all present and I can feel that rich goodness that science says comes with being grateful, and not just a few times a year, but each and every day. I am calmer, I smile more. Give yourself some goodness each day too, and see what it can do for you.
“…is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep a priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.” ~ David Whyte, Consolations
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I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Face Book or Linked In.