The term managing up is a simple way to describe the struggles leaders sometimes have with speaking truth to power. If you aren’t at the top of the organizational chart at some point you will face this challenge. Let me share from my experience.
Prior to owning my business, I worked for a couple of bosses with intimidating personalities. They weren’t alike in how they behaved but both enjoyed being in charge and telling you what they thought about your ideas. I struggled at times to defend my positions.
In the midst of a discussion, it’s not always easy to acknowledge anxiety and focus on the truth, at least your version of it. Those moments would tend to pit my convictions or values against my fears of what could go wrong.
As I developed a deeper understanding of myself, and the different personalities of those same bosses, it became easier to stand my ground. Over time I found that our relationship grew stronger when I was willing to say what was on my mind. I didn’t always win but felt like I was always heard.
Conversation experts point to some basic keys that should be considered when managing up.
- Seek permission to share your ideas. When I challenged my bosses without seeking their permission it became easier for them to shut down the conversation. If I acknowledged their position and made it clear their decision would be honored, then I could speak my truth into the situation. It didn’t always change their minds but it allowed me to speak my mind.
- Help them connect logically to your point of view. One of my bosses needed detailed analysis before making decisions. If I framed my case in those terms I immediately had his attention.
- Identify their fears. This isn’t easy but might be the hidden reason your boss won’t move forward. My bosses weren’t eager to share their fears so I looked for clues that might help me identify them. Sometimes they appeared in casual conversations and other times emerged through actions. If I sensed they might be afraid of elements in my plan I would bring it up so they knew I understood its importance.
- Respect their authority. Regardless of how compelling your case or how strongly you feel about an issue, you’re not the final word. Always defer to your boss for the final verdict about your idea or plan.
Those early conversations didn’t always follow these keys and I made plenty of mistakes. I also learned that the relationship between a boss and direct report should be built around candid feedback and mutual respect. If you want your boss to like you, it’s tempting to just tell her what she wants to hear. But that’s not managing up.
Instead, speak the truth to power and have them value the relationship because of it.