Managing up comes with risks, rewards
Communication, collaboration, cooperation. Those are a few favorite things when it comes to “managing up” at work, but handling a difficult boss can be tricky.
The challenges and risks are playing out in the White House on a regular basis with a long list of departures as President Donald Trump grows increasingly wary of advice from staff. For the rest of us, though, what’s on the table when attempting to manage up, and what’s at stake? It’s more than just workflow, and it can be a job killer.
Some common scenarios:
When you disagree with a boss
Duncan Lowe in San Francisco is co-producer and co-host of a weekly podcast called “Millennial Minded.” He also works in account management for the public relations and marketing firm Double Forte. His weekly podcast guest is his boss, the company’s founder, president and CEO, Lee Caraher, who wrote the book “Millennials & Management: The Essential Guide to Making it Work at Work.”
Lowe, at 27, is a millennial. Caraher, at 54, is not. It’s a common age dynamic in workplaces today.
“I always knew that communication is crucial, but sometimes we shy away from confronting an issue because it doesn’t feel good. We run away from conflict,” Lowe says. “But things can really fester. They just don’t go away. Confront, but do it respectfully and come with some context around the issue. Once you have that conversation, it feels really good and you feel like a weight has been lifted.”
And what says the boss?
“Company values have become so much more important to a wide range of workers,” she says. “There’s a high degree of expectation from a large portion of millennials to line up personal goals, personal values with company values. They want to know why, why, why. So tell them.”
If you want to know why work isn’t a democracy
“Yeah, it’s not,” says Caraher. “However, the best businesses are the ones where leadership is asking for input, absorbing input and then making a decision, but it’s no longer command and control. You manage up by being cogent and persuasive, with backup, asking for the time to present your input, being able to answer questions.”
“Lee has taught me high input, low democracy is how a lot of companies are run. If we spent all week debating whether to go left or right and there were different people looking for different paths, we would deliberate for weeks. You need someone who can say we’re going to the right. And when your boss says that, after seeking input, it’s your job as an employee to get on the boat and go, and not dig in your heels and say, ‘Wow, I’m pretty angry and I’m going to make this difficult.’ ”
If your boss is a micromanager
Mary Abbajay, a Washington, D.C.-based organizational consultant, trainer and the founder-president of Careerstone Group, wrote the book “Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work and Succeed with Any Type of Boss.”
“This is the kind of boss people complain about the most,” she says. “They want control and information, so first of all accept that’s who he or she is. He or she is not going to change. I would recommend that you flood them with information. If you want to be in the loop you keep them in the loop. Don’t wait for them to be over your shoulder. You get over their shoulder first.”
Pivoting into defensive mode is counterproductive, Abbajay says. “You have to be proactive and say, ‘Here’s what I’m working on, here are the priorities, here’s where I think you are. Is there anything I’m not doing?’ ”
How to manage the ghost boss
This manager is the flipside to the hyper-hands-on boss.
“A ghost boss throws you a project and then disappears,” Abbajay says. “They’re never around. They’re not giving you feedback. You never see them.”
Nurture their schedulers and assistants as best friends forever, but know that managing your own expectations is key.
“They’re probably going to cancel half of your meetings, but at least you’ll have the other half,” Abbajay says. “When you do go in with the ghost boss, you have to be really clear what you need from them. If you need approvals, know what you need ahead of time.”
Also, be up front about plans.
“Say, ‘Hey, Ghost Boss. I’m going to be working on X, Y and Z. If you have input, please let me know.’ You’ve got to be the one who’s driving the train,” Abbajay says. “When you do get their attention, use it wisely.”
When your boss has crossed the sexual misconduct line
“This depends a lot on where you work,” Abbajay says. “We all know, as much as I hate to say it, that whistleblowers don’t always get a fair shot. If it’s a large company, you actually have a better chance, but you need to make sure that HR department actually has your back.”
Be willing to stake your job on speaking out.
Many millennials, raised by older workers who were pushed out of jobs in the economic hard times of 2009 and 2010, are more willing to leave, Abbajay and Caraher agree. That, combined with silence as complicity, as the #MeToo movement reflects, has changed the dynamic for many workers who once thought job security was the No. 1 priority.
“It depends on where you are, but document everything,” Caraher counsels. “One strategy is pretty straightforward. You can go to that person and say, ‘You may not be aware, but this is what I’ve observed. I’m telling you this because you’re at risk.’ ”
When your boss is, um, all about himself/ herself
Ali Craig is a fixer of brands. She weaves science, psychology, design and human nature into strategies on how to boost influence. She prides herself on knowing how to make large ideas doable for anyone serious about taking action.
“Learn the ins and outs of your boss’s quirks and, to put it bluntly, learn how to manipulate them to the organization’s benefit,” Craig says.
“If flattery and ego inflation are the ticket to getting your boss on board with a program, let the compliments flow,” she says. “If you know that they are influenced greatly by the last person they spoke with, make sure you are their last conversation before any important decisions are made. Basically, adjust your work style to turn your boss’s quirks into company wins.”
Liz Bentley, a New York executive coach and leadership development expert, says most bosses are easily triggered.
“When your boss gets triggered, there are a number of effective things to do,” she says. “First, don’t hide, address the issue head on and listen up. Do not get derailed by the emotions or drama your boss may be creating. Stay focused on the problem or challenge at hand.”
Own your anger, if that’s the case. Be accountable, if you haven’t. Look for a solution.
“If it’s not about you then remember, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU,” Bentley says. “It’s about the challenge. Don’t become a bigger part of the problem. Look to diffuse what’s going on so you can get back to work.”