Managing Up To Get What You Need
A disgruntled human resources manager once criticized me for managing up. And yet after over a dozen interviews with young women about the modern workplace, “managing up” was one of the most common requests for help.
Reflecting on it now, I remember how this HR person had a tendency to frustrate other executives and often reminded them that she had been at the company for 16 years (all while never promoted). So I tried not to take her affronts personally.
But I thought it was interesting that when she had a chance to chew me out, she clawed at the things that made me a great executive – and also happen to defy stereotypes of what it means to be Asian or a woman.
I don’t think it’s new news that little girls are praised for following instructions and being quiet. But the fine art of managing up requires showing what you know, holding your ground, and appearing likeable – all in the company of people more senior to you.
It is daunting. And it is not easy.
My background and upbringing trained me to hide what I know, make way for other people, and avoid being seen at all.
Unwinding all of that was not easy. When done right, managing up is the opposite of telling people what they want to hear or saying yes to everything. I don’t think my work is entirely done.
The interaction with human resources reminded me that all the inner work in the world still won’t change other people’s perceptions. But the work is still necessary to not fall victim to their perceptions.
What’s Really Going On
The fact that we think we have to “manage up” is usually a symptom of a deeper feeling: being run over, minimized, underutilized, etc. Make a laundry list of what’s behind the desire to manage up.
- My boss hates my ideas.
- He is dismissive.
- She doesn’t communicate.
- I don’t have any patience.
Now write out the opposite:
- My boss respects my ideas.
- He welcomes my feedback
- She confides in me.
- I have endurance.
These are your goals.
How To Get There
Now that you know what you want, let’s explore how to get there. I know the goals may sound ridiculous considering where we are starting from, but we have to believe in change before it happens.
Moving from “he hates my ideas” to “he respects my ideas” is a long trek. Start by thinking about what ideas your boss likes. Reflect on what projects he prioritizes. Who or what happens that moves him into action?
By offering ideas adjacent to those ideas, you are more likely to win their support. Three basic strategies are at your disposal:
Let’s say your goal is to get your boss to communicate more. Right now, you probably feel stuck because it’s very hard to change someone’s mind who has already made up their mind about you.
Instead of confronting him, try incorporating these prompts into everyday conversation:
- “If I knew…I could…”
- “This reminds me when…”
- “I could…if…would that be helpful?”
By slyly communicating, you leave breadcrumbs leading to your goal. The operative word is sly. Some A-types may disagree, but I don’t believe confrontation creates meaningful change except for in extreme circumstances.
“We can’t fix what we don’t talk about.”
– DeRay Mckesson
Especially when dealing with authority, make room for misunderstanding.
Always give an out, which is essentially an excuse that you pre-emptively offer on the other person’s behalf. Even when they don’t deserve it per se. Remember your goal. If they bite, just let them slither away so you can move on.
For example, I hosted an event a few weeks ago and arranged space with an organization that I’m very involved with. They promised to help promote the event to their email list and weekly announcements. Well, I happen to be on both distribution lists. Nothing happened.
Here’s what I wrote in response:
Hi Jane, sorry to bug you, but I noticed that XYZ was not listed in the email announcement…just confirming there will be a blurb in the upcoming printed weekly as discussed?
If not, because I know how things can get lost in email, can we discuss doing a separate email blast to the larger group? Thank you!
The alarms sounded. They forgot. And they were gracious enough to make a special announcement that I believe ended up working better. If they did not, I would have prodded them about the event’s purpose and how beneficial it would be if everyone knew about it.
The problem is not whether someone did or did not do something. The problem is getting the information about the event to a relevant group of people. There is no room for shame when we are both on the same side.
Rinse & Repeat
Change won’t happen overnight. Managing up requires sensitivity, savvy, and continuous practice. Be patient with yourself. Some words won’t make a difference. Remind yourself that this is part of a wider experiment to find the words that do.
It’s also worth noting that many startup environments pride themselves on open-door policies and a laid back culture. These are all great qualities. But remember these words are merely paint on a house. How about the plumbing? What about the roof? What happens when it rains?
Don’t be fooled. Any homeowner will tell you that every house has problems. Just like every organization. No group of people is immune…family, friends, or companies.
“Whether you are completely remodeling your home or using some of the readily available low-cost adaptive products, creating a safe, comfortable and accessible environment is not planning for disability – it’s planning for continued independence.”
We have to prioritize what’s important and work with what’s there. Up, down, and inside-out.