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March 6, 2017

Managing Upwards

This article offers advice on the importance of building a good relationship with your boss, and some practical tips on what to do.

Managing Upwards

You may have a team to manage but sometimes managing upwards can be the hardest part of your job. Your team will be looking to you to secure the resources and decisions they need from your line manager, so it is worth investing time in building a strong and mutually respectful relationship. 

Understand what is expected of you

It is always a good idea to clarify with your boss what they are expecting from you. Make it part of your induction to download that from them covering topics including.

. What in their opinion are your main priorities for the next 3, 6 and 12 months?
. Where do they think the greatest opportunities for growth are in your area?
. Which areas do they think will be the most challenging and do they have a preferred way for you to tackle them?
. How often do they want to meet with you and what format will that meeting take?
. What communication would they like from you in between meetings? Would they prefer that you email them as things come up or save it all up for one email or meeting?
. What level of problem do they want to know about and what are you okay to deal with yourself and tell them what you did?

Understanding your manager

The main secret to influencing anyone is to understand that individual as well as you possibly can. There are things you can ask them about themselves but many people aren't self-aware and you can learn almost as much by watching and listening to how they deal with you and others. Here are some things to look out for.

What seems to stress them out or make them anxious? Most otherwise calm CEOs will get stressed in the run up to Board meetings for example. Watch for the body language, tone of voice and the words they use that give you a clue that they are not happy - them you'll be able to pick up when you are saying or doing things that are sending them in that direction.

What are their bugbears? For some people it is typos - if you send something to them with a typo in it then they start to doubt your ability to deliver on the detail of everything. For others it might be perceived negativity or not listening enough - listen to what your manager complains about when they are talking about other people.

What are they passionate about? What do they talk about with the most energy and enthusiasm?

How do they prefer their information? Do they like stories or charts? Are they a visual person who sketches out ideas? Do they make lists? Do they want to go into the detail of everything or do that find that boring and want big picture thinking? Are they risk averse or do they like to innovate and push boundaries?

If you use a personality profile like Insights or Myers-Briggs in your organisation then ask your manager about their profile and share yours.

Invest in your personal relationship with your manager. It is always nice to start with a lunch where you can chat about things other than work as well. Your manager is human just like you, with a whole life and other priorities outside of work, even if it sometimes doesn't feel like it. Taking the time to remember their children's names or ask about their hobbies shows that you care about them and builds rapport.

Helping your manager get the best out of you

Make sure that you understand what your manager wants you to do when they delegate a task. It is helpful to reflect back to them what you heard them ask for and ask any clarifying questions you need to. Share with your manager what motivates you and what makes you feel valued.

Even if your organisation doesn't routinely use personality profiling you could share your profile if you have one or suggest that as a leadership team you all get profiled so you can work even more effectively together. If you need input from your manager then share with them what you need, by when (and why if necessary).

Influencing your manager

There may be times that you and your manager do not agree on the best way forward on a particular issue. It is important to find a way to disagree with your manager that is professional, constructive, persuasive and shows appropriate respect for authority. How you do that is going to depend on the individual and what you have learnt about them. Some people appreciate directness, some people like to go away and think about problems and come back to you, some like a good debate and others find it hard to say when they disagree but find another way of showing you.

Timing is also important - if you catch me when I am tired, have sat in boring meetings all day and am hungry, it is likely that I will be less positive than if I am feeling rested and well fed. If you need something from your manager catch them at a good time for them.

Think like your manager. By which I mean understand their priorities and try and consider things from their perspective as well as yours. If you can understand what their concerns might be about a proposal then you can acknowledge those concerns and make counter-arguments. If your manager is the CEO then try and think organisationally rather than like a fundraiser.

Accept that sometimes you won't get the decision you want from you manager. It is really important to know when you cannot win a battle, acknowledge to yourself that they have more responsibility than you and therefore more authority and accept and make the best out of the decision that has been made.

Managing yourself

Consciously decide what impression you want to give to your manager and keep that front of mind every time you communicate with them. Don't be too relaxed even if they are super friendly - they are still your superior and need to be treated with respect. Sometimes people are not as straight forward as they may appear - people can seem relaxed for example but still judge you for informality in certain situations. My advice is to start cautiously if you don't know your manager at all.

Be aware of the things you do that previous managers or colleagues may have found annoying and make sure that you manage your behaviour. I sometimes talk over people when I'm really exited about an idea and people can find that disrespectful (and it is - though not purposefully) so I have to consciously slow myself down and allow other people more space in the conversation.

Stop and think when you are stressed or worried. If you blast off an email in panic every time something goes wrong rather than reviewing the situation and considering the best approach that will make you seem less in control of your area and yourself.

Go to your manager with solutions, not just problems. It is old advice but still very relevant, particularly for senior staff.

About the author

Carla Miller is a coach, consultant and facilitator, who works with charities and companies to create growth and develop happy, high-performing teams.


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