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Manager relationships are complicated
I don’t remember the first time I heard the phrase “managing up.” I assumed it meant “you have to manage your manager.” But according to Harvard Business Review (or at least, this person’s opinion), it means something different.
“[Managing up] means being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and company. That’s why the best path to a healthy relationship begins and ends with doing your job, and doing it well.”
There’s an entire series from HBR about maintaining an “effective, productive working relationship” with your boss. And this article also mentions disagreeing in a “respectful, productive way.”
The crux of the HBR argument is that the boss is, at a minimum, competent. Without a doubt, the boss is in control. There are links to articles about dealing with insecure bosses, remote bosses, indecisive bosses, long-winded bosses, etc.
The point I’d like to focus on is the damage to the employee in these situations. It’s far from ideal — though I fully recognize the need to “play nice” in a workplace, especially if you’re stuck and need the job.
Let the boss think it was their idea
I was part of a discussion recently around “What happens when a boss doesn’t listen?” One person responded (as a tactic):
“Then there’s convincing them each idea was theirs. Bad bosses assume they know best and cannot fathom being wrong. Therefore, if the idea was theirs, they can’t refute it.”
A former boss — the COO of the company — coached me to do this with the CEO. She assured me that he would be more receptive if he thought the idea was his. I was to plant the idea gradually, sometimes over the course of weeks or months, until he finally said, “Hey, you know what? We should do this.”
This was a major adjustment for me. I was used to my boss (the COO) understanding and respecting my opinion — and being able to offer such opinions directly.
But I’ve learned, especially as my reach has expanded beyond the small circle of the world I knew for 15 years, that this happens all the time. Employees — competent, insightful, knowledgable employees — have to essentially pander to the fact that a boss doesn’t respect anyone’s opinions except their own. Or have to convince the boss over time that the employee has authority on the topic.
It’s a pervasive notion with many bosses: that they know more (or all), even though employees are hired to provide specific expertise. It’s also an issue of trust, and trusting the knowledge and insights that the employee provides.
One of my greatest regrets as a manager was coaching someone below me to do the same. After I heard her present something to the CEO — and when she scoffed at his skepticism — I told her that she needed to take a lighter touch with him. Not be so forceful.
Her response of “Uhhhh… ok” made it clear that she was NOT impressed with this approach and thought it ridiculous.
I was perpetuating the problem that my boss had introduced.
Later, after that employee and I had both left the company, I apologized to her. Whatever I had done to survive in my role, I shouldn’t have suggested that she do the same. I shouldn’t have enabled the problem to persist. The CEO needed to hear opinions other than his own, and instead, I was silencing them.
I will always say that you need to look out for yourself. Do whatever you have to do to survive at work. But there are limits to what you should suggest to others. You can warn in a way that makes it clear that you don’t condone a boss’s behavior. I failed to do that.
Dealing with managerial incompetence
Someone I know left a job she loved because her manager was completely incompetent.
When she was first hired, her manager was a gem. A dream manager. But someone new came in, there was a kerfuffle, her manager was ousted, and a new manager was installed. The new manager had the gall to tell her that she didn’t deserve a promotion she’d received months earlier (even though it was well-documented that she’d met the internal requirements for leveling up in her role). So she left.
This had always been my understanding of “managing up” until I read some alternative definitions. You manage your manager. They’re not doing their job, so you manage their expectations — often in a way that favors you.
Perhaps the one iota I can agree with from the HBR definition — “creating value for your boss” — is that being helpful gives you a lot of freedom. Sometimes without a lot of effort. If you can get a boss to trust you, you might be able to do the work you want, even if you’re pandering to said boss.
It’s a way to survive the situation.
“Don’t tell me how to do my job”
The problem with “managing up” (by my definition) — it probably feels icky.
You know you were hired, promoted, given responsibility to do a certain role. And your boss is standing in the way of your expertise.
And now on top of that you’re managing your relationship with your boss — the person who is supposed to be supportive. Your cheerleader.
But the reality is that many, many bosses aren’t fit to be bosses. Sometimes it’s not even their fault. We live in a system where individual contributors reach a ceiling at their company, with no way to advance other than to manage a team — even if they have no particular management skills. It’s the only way to get ahead.
How you respond, and how much you tolerate depends on your particular situation.
I say get out, because that’s what I did. I spent months plotting my departure (tolerating my frustration and holding my tongue for a long time). I know that’s not the reality for a lot of people.
But if you’re trapped, you can adopt my definition of managing up. Manage your manager. Work the situation so it favors you. Make the most you can out of the day-to-day, even if it feels icky.
Even if, in your head, you’re screaming, “Don’t tell me how to do my job.”
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