Managing Up: True Life Tales

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How real people have led their boss in the right direction. The common theme? Honest and open communication.

The guidelines for managing up sound simple and straightforward. Among other things, you must communicate clearly and openly, anticipate your boss's needs, avoid surprises, be sensitive to his work and management styles and, in general, make him look good to both superiors and subordinates. Tales from the trenches tell a similar story.

In one case, a major restructuring resulted in a manager (we'll call him Hal) of a large department reporting to a new leadership team, whose executive has a different background and approach to work. Hal was frustrated because it was evident the boss (we'll call him Ed) wasn't getting what he needed. The new boss was frustrated because he thought Hal was becoming oppositional. That wasn't Hal's intention: He saw himself as simply asking questions to understand his new situation, a recommended managing-up technique.

The two men's communication became so fraught they might as well have been speaking different languages. In a way, they were. So, it was critical for Hal to learn Ed's language. One way he did this was by setting goals. Hal took extra time to write down goals that accommodated Ed's needs and "hot buttons," using many words from Ed's vocabulary.

After reviewing Hal's goals, Ed told him, "You did a fabulous job. It's evident to me that you're clear in the direction you and your department are going, and I agree with everything you have written."

Anthony Panos, director of the management development and human resource management programs at Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School, "The department manager did not 'suck up.' Rather, he restructured the communication in a way that was understandable to the other manager. He included goals that were important to him, but positioned them in a way that was understandable, and demonstrated how they met the needs of the other manager."

Speak Up to Manage Up

Panos provided both Hal's story, and one involving a middle manager we'll call Holly. She wasn't getting the support she needed from her supervisor, especially when one of her direct reports, Meredith, worked around her.

"Advocating for oneself is an important part of managing up," Panos says. To him, Holly next step was the appropriate one: She said to her supervisor, "When Meredith came to you yesterday about the situation in my department, you responded. When that occurs, it puts me in a difficult situation and lessens my ability to manage this department. You have great influence with the people in this organization, and I would like you to support me by redirecting anyone who comes to you back to me so I can handle the situation."

The supervisor agreed with Holly's assessment. For her part, Holly learned her supervisor had no intention of undermining her authority.

To Learn More:

Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship With Those Above You by Rosanne Badowski and Roger Gittines

Managing Up: 59 Ways to Build a Career-Advancing Relationship With Your Boss by Michael Singer Dobson and Deborah Singer Dobson

Throwing the Elephant: Zen and the Art of Managing Up by Stanley Bing

One-day course in managing up offered in Manhattan by Cornell's Industrial and Labor Relations School ($695), June 8, October 19, December 3. Click here for details.

What's your experience with managing your boss? Share your experiences by posting a comment below.