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