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Managing “Up” the Organization

Managing up the organization is a great catch phrase. It gives comfort to those who feel their boss is less than a good one. I’ve seldom heard this concept used in relation to having a good boss.

Managing Up the Organization
Managing Up the Organization

Working for a good boss, you merely do your job. You hope your effort is rewarded appropriately (which it likely will be since you believe the person to be a good boss).

The “managing up” concept frequently appears when the immediate manager is not so good. I find a serious conundrum when trying to coach these principles to a junior executive who is having trouble with their boss.

The better idea may be to forget “managing” your boss since that really will never happen. There are reasons he/she is your boss, whether you can accept them or not. The organization has made a choice to align the structure the way it is with the people who are there for the moment. It is unlikely this person will respond in any way other than hostile to any attempt you make to manage them. Your effort may actually backfire, causing you to be tagged as a rebel or malcontent.

I submit that the better concept is to manage yourself; get hold of your own expectations and values. Then begin crafting a strategy to build the relationship with this challenging boss. It’s often an all-hands on deck call to action. By that I mean you must muster all of the skills and abilities you possess to build the bridge and get to the other side.

As Mike Myatt writes in his column:

“Here’s the thing – the best way to be looked upon favorably by those you report to is not through various charades and other forms of skulduggery, but by simply doing your job and serving them well.

Good leaders want you to succeed. They welcome a sincere challenge of their instruction so long as the question comes in the form of finding ways to make a better team. They get that.

Bad managers take offense at the occasional question. They see such action as a threat to their role. While they may never respond directly, they simmer and boil over your effort to “one up them”. Regardless of how well intended your message may be, they may still see it as a threat. There is no good way for you to know the difference.

When it comes to dealing with a boss you feel needs to be managed, here are some suggestions.

  1. Engage –  Be present in the moment. Do not let prior disappointments cloud today’s topics. Soldier on! Keep doing what you believe is the right thing.
  2. Be open –  Take your shots at sharing the plan, vision, practice, and standard you have set for your own team. Seek ways to align those things with the values the boss is laying out. If the boss has failed to share such information, then yes, you have a bad boss, but you must lead the effort to find alignment. Leading is far different from managing. Exert your own brand of leadership for the moment when alignment is missing.
  3. Show loyalty – Never let the boss have a reason to believe you are not loyal. Reinforce the ways you support the goals of the department. You should never be a ‘suck up’ about this, but you can be clear in your communication. If the trust you are giving is violated too many times, then you have no choice but to seek another role or another job elsewhere.
  4. Give advice –  Ask for permission to offer another opinion before doing so. If your input is rejected on a routine basis, then see #3 above.

The most common theme in worker/boss relationships where the employee feels a need to manage up is the absence of meaningful communication; solid, two-way flow of information and understanding.

Yes, bad managers fail with communication regularly. As the person reporting to such a boss, I go back to the gold standard: do your job. This is why I love the Big Five Performance system. As an employee, Big 5 gives you a regular monthly method for focusing on the 5 things you plan to accomplish in the new month and the 5 things you achieved last month. Give this simple, one page (sometimes half page), bulleted list report to your boss. Ask them for feedback.

If the boss aligns/agrees with what you submit, then you have some degree of harmony. If they don’t agree, then hopefully it creates a moment to connect, coach, and discuss the matters that are out of alignment. If the manager won’t respond at all, then refer again to #3 above.

Using a simple tool like Big 5 creates the catalyst for open, nonthreatening communication about what is going on. Plus it provides the added benefit of documenting what you have been doing. If there is ever a question of performance, you have a collection of actionable items that were either agreed or endorsed before you began them.

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As communication improves, trust grows. As trust grows, you begin to see the imperfections melt away. I’m not being naive about this. I have worked it this way myself with several of those to whom I have had to report. Most situations worked out quite nicely. Yet there was the reality that I chose door number three (above) on a couple of occasions.

While you may never really manage up the organization, you can do things to build a better relationship with the superior who may need such handling.