With Martin G. Moore

Episode #162

Managing Up: A cheat sheet

We get an unbelievable number of questions every month about how to manage up more effectively.

It’s important to make sure your boss doesn’t prevent you from performing at your best (or enjoying your work)!

So the dynamic you should be trying to create is to manage up to enhance performance, not just to feather your own nest. All too often, managing up becomes a Machiavellian game with a high body count, and the organization suffers tremendously as a result, in terms of both culture and performance.

In this episode I cover how to really know what type of boss you’re working for, and I provide 9 hot tips for managing up in any situation (which you can download in a PDF below).

Ultimately, if you do your job really well, a good boss will enhance your work, and a bad boss will be less of a factor!


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Episode #162 Managing Up: A cheat sheet

We get an unbelievable number of questions every month about how to manage upwards more effectively, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

When we run our Leadership Beyond the Theory cohorts, many of the questions are framed like this…

“Marty, it’s all well and good for me to become a better leader, but I’m working for a boss who just doesn’t get it. How can I manage the situation so that I can still perform to the best of my ability despite their interference?”

I’ve seen some grand masters at upwards management in my time. By all accounts, I was pretty reasonable at it myself, but I could never stomach the people around me who used upwards management as their sole means of ingratiating themselves with the boss.

The dynamic we should be trying to create is to manage upwards, to enhance performance, not just to feather our own nest.

All too often, that becomes a Machiavellian game with a high body count.

The organisation suffers tremendously as a result in terms of both culture and performance. So whereas you don’t want to be labelled as an upwards manager, you still need to be able to effectively optimise the situation you’re in. And without support from your boss, you’re pretty much screwed in a corporate environment, so building that relationship is all important.

  • I’m going to start with some guidance on knowing who it is you’re actually working for.

  • I’ll move on to the number one principle for managing upwards effectively.

  • We’ll have a quick look at how to see the world from your boss’ perspective.

  • I’m going to finish with my nine hot tips for managing up in any situation

guidance on knowing who it is you’re working for

Before you start worrying about how to manage your boss, you need to know your boss. Who is it that you’re actually working for? What type of culture does your boss create?

Not what they talk about, but what they’re serious about enforcing? What do they set in terms of the tone, the pace and the standard?

For example:

  • Do they encourage and welcome respectful challenge?

  • Do they draw out and listen to the diverse views of the team?

  • Are they authoritarian?

  • Do they micro-manage?

  • Is credit passed down to the right level, or always preserved for the boss’ self?

  • What happens when something goes wrong?

  • Does the boss fold or do they fire up when they’re under pressure?

  • Do they play favourites or do they run a merit-based organisation?

  • Is your boss a kiss up, kick down kind of leader?

  • Do they have a finger on the pulse?

All of this goes to culture, the way we do things around here.

Then, what signals does your boss send to you about their expectations of you? All bosses think that they want independent, hardworking, self-starters. They’ll always tell you that they want people who are challenging and innovative. People who take accountability for getting things done. Leaders of others who can rally the troops to victory. People who challenge everyone around them to be better. People with high, moral and ethical standards.

And look, there are lots of leaders like this. They value great people and you can feel it. Happy days if you have one of those. Bosses like this are relatively easy to work for and very little upwards management is required because they already have the foundations and principles of decent leadership. I was fortunate enough in my career to have a surplus of these leaders and they propelled me forward. But there are also many bosses who ultimately just want someone to agree with them and do what they’re told.

They’re often insecure leaders who are happier when they’re not being challenged. Now of course this kills performance and drives a very unhealthy culture into a team. But, bosses like this don’t like to be challenged, as it messes with their deep insecurities. They want their people to nod and smile and tell them how clever they are. They’re more comfortable around people who confirm their greatness rather than bringing constructive challenge.

Unfortunately, there are many suck ups who will all too happily play right into this type of culture. In its worst form, these bosses are sometimes afraid of being out shown by their team, so they’re conflicted about great ideas that aren’t theirs. They know deep down how important your ideas are for performance, but they kind of resent the fact that they’re not coming up with the ideas themselves. Weirdly, these bosses often end up in competition with their people, for attention from above.

Then of course, there are some other common things to look out for. Some bosses have to have the last say on everything, so don’t expect any of your ideas to get legs. After a while, you’ll eventually stop offering them.

Other bosses like to have ultimate control and they’ll overrule their people on virtually everything. This really messes with the accountability model. They want you to be submissive and capitulate on all issues, but they also want to punish you and throw you under the bus, the minute something goes wrong.

Let’s face it, some bosses are simply erratic and inconsistent.

Ultimately, it’s your assessment of your boss’ own performance and behaviours that will guide you in how to approach the relationship.

the #1 THING TO do THAT WILL HELP YOU manage upwards

Let me give you the number one thing that you can do to manage upwards.

Do your job.

You see, ultimately managing up has nothing to do with your boss and much more about what you need to do to achieve results.

We can all bitch and moan about how our boss behaves, but for me, I always figured it was better to just get on with it and do a great job. That seems to provide a lot more opportunity and longevity in virtually any organisation.

This is why the number one imperative we teach in Leadership Beyond the Theory is how to deliver value. Everything we do as a leader should be in service of this primary objective, and that’s where we should focus our attention.

You should be able to do this independently. With a good boss, this means you’ll be able to supercharge the outcomes that they would have otherwise been able to achieve without you. With a not so good boss, you’ll at least be able to deliver results, regardless of what they’re doing to interfere or even sub-optimise the situation.

I know this is good in theory, and a bad boss can make it a really long day in the office, but this should be your goal. To leverage your boss’ strengths and whatever help she’s prepared to give you, while neutralising any potential downside in her behaviour.

Just a reminder, value is much more than just financial value. Imagine if you were working in an industrial business and you were able to set new standards of safety performance, reducing workplace injuries to zero. Would that create value and would your boss be happy with that? Delivering value is the pre-requisite for a great relationship with your boss. If you produce exceptional results, you’ll be given a lot more room to move by even the most controlling or demanding boss, and there is nothing better than a bunch of open space to run in.

It’s also extremely rare that producing exceptional results will be frowned upon, by your boss. I have seen this very occasionally and one situation in particular comes to mind where one of my bosses was so insecure that the delivery of extraordinary value made him feel threatened. It was as if he couldn’t bring himself to recognise that performance because of how it would have made him feel about himself. Despite that of course, he was happy to bank the bonuses that came as a result of that over performance. But mostly, doing your job exceptionally well and delivering value will trump any downsides of your boss’ nuances and quirks.

how to see the world from your boss’ perspective

In any human relationship, it’s really important to be able to view the world through the other person’s eyes, and your boss is no exception to this rule.

Yes, there’s a power dynamic that plays in their favour, but your goal is to cut through that, to set a relationship on a more equal footing. You want to become a trusted advisor to your boss.

I spend a whole lesson in Leadership Beyond the Theory, talking about being promotable and part of this is embracing the principle that it’s way better to be a trusted advisor than it is to be a workhorse. You create much more value for your boss and yourself that way.

But the short story is in order to become a trusted advisor, you need to think about the world differently. Sure, deliver on your own accountabilities first. Without this, managing upwards is a moot point. But you need to particularly think about how to add value to your boss, with what you know, the capabilities you possess, and the resources you have at your disposal.

This means you have to think above and beyond your own narrow objectives. It means looking upwards and beside you, rather than just downwards. Always be asking yourself the question, ‘What can I do from my position to optimise the organisation overall, not just deliver my stuff?’

There’s no way that you can do this unless you’ve mastered the art of working at the right level. And being able to see to the next level and identify with your customers, suppliers and other major stakeholders, will turbocharge your ability to achieve great things.

There’s an old podcast episode that I love coming back to, and it’s Episode #85; Strategy Isn’t Hard. This will help you to think about the higher order objectives and to focus up and out, instead of in and down.

Being astute in your knowledge of the company strategy and how your team fits into that will open the door to many fruitful conversations with your boss – if you have the right boss. If you don’t, you probably need to know that, and you’ll find out pretty quickly once you start to engage with your boss on her level.

There are lots of serendipities to understanding more about what drives your organisation and what creates value for it. Not least of these, is your ability to understand and communicate to your people, what you expect from them. How do they fit into the bigger picture and what do they need to do to be successful when they turn up to work each day? Apart from the high level strategy, there are many other things you can do to engage with your boss and become the type of trusted advisor who’s just allowed to go away and get on with it.

Work out what you need to do in order to see the world through your boss’ eyes, and think about how you can add value to him, not just to do your own thing.

The two foundational things that you can always do, because they’re no regrets moves, are:

A. focus on delivering value. In other words, do your job, and

B. try to see the world through your boss’ eyes

MY 9 tips for managing up in any situation

I’m going to put together a grab bag of tips that you can use to manage upwards better.

These are going to be situational, so think of them like potential tactics to draw upon under different circumstances

1. Don’t ever let your boss make a mistake

If your boss knows that you’ll be there to stop him from stepping on a landmine, he’ll really appreciate that, trust me. But if you’re too timid to even tell him when he’s entering a minefield, he’ll be less likely to seek you out in the future.

If you don’t let your boss make a mistake, you’ll establish intrinsic value to him.

2. Build trust

This is sort of supplementary to point number 1. Trust comes through demonstrating that you’re true to your values and you have a moral and ethical code that you won’t compromise. You need to be consistent. Do what you say. Make sure your boss can rely on you to come through, in any situation.

Oh, and make sure you over-deliver, that seems to work pretty well. \

3. Communicate appropriately

Make sure your boss understands what you’re dealing with, and therefore the risks that she’s dealing with. Keep her informed, but don’t invite her into your knitting. It doesn’t require a blow by blow description. It’s about headlines and punchlines and anything that you think might creep up onto the radar.

For example, potential staff issues or anything that might garner media attention would be a classic to make sure your boss is kept informed of.

But a really important rule is that bad news has to travel fast. As my trusted friend and colleague Mark Albertson would say, “Bad news by rocket, good news by rickshaw”.

So never leave your boss in the dark about something that she may need the opportunity to manage.

4. Learn how to give your boss feedback

There are some rules of thumb here. Let’s assume first, that you have the respect and the relationship that you need to be able to do this.

Then follow these steps.

  • You’ve got to pick your time

  • You’ve got to be genuine

  • Don’t complain

  • Be constructive

  • Always ask permission first – “Hey boss, do you mind if I give you some feedback?”

  • Be respectful and honest

  • Ask their opinion and guidance rather than telling them what they should be doing

  • Be specific so they know exactly what you mean

Not all bosses want feedback, I know that. Nor do they create a feedback culture. I was really lucky to have people working for me who for the most part felt as though they could give me feedback on anything, because it’s an essential component of a high-performance culture.

Sometimes, I got to admit, the hair would stand up on the back of my neck when I was receiving feedback, but I realised I just needed to get over that.

Be a leader who seeks honest feedback from your people, and do your boss the courtesy of giving her the same.

5. Be a straight shooter, but in a diplomatic and respectful way

Always make sure your boss has the benefit of your honest views on something, even if it’s controversial or unpalatable.

Now, this is really a build on the previous two points on feedback and communication.

You’ve got to think about how to soften your language when you’re talking to your boss, even though you’re delivering a very direct message.

I used to start with phrases like this, “Look boss, this is just a suggestion, but”. Or something like, “Boss, it appears to me that X is happening”.

Sometimes I’d start even more meekly by saying, “Now look, I could well be wrong, but”. Or if I was offering a suggestion, “I wonder what would happen if we tried this approach?”

And if you wanted to actually take something on, you can always say, “Would you like me to explore this option further?”

All of these statements are designed to make a very direct message sound less threatening.

6. Play the ball, not the man or woman, of course

Never make things personal. If there’s an issue or problem you’re facing with a peer, you need to rise above it.

I had a very recent podcast episode on this: Episode #158, The Blame Game. Don’t blame others. That just sounds like excuses. The view is a hell of lot better from the moral high ground, let me tell you.

Even if your boss is stupid enough to engage in the politics and undermining behaviours that often occur in senior levels of larger organisations, let it go.

7. Feed your boss insights and observations that he can’t access himself

You have a perfect vantage point for giving your boss a bird’s eye view of what’s going on lower down in the organisation. This could well stop him from believing his own bullshit.

Don’t cover up and gloss over any issues that exist below you. Particularly in terms of culture, performance, and resourcing. Give him the cliff note version, without dragging him into the detail and making it his problem.

But you need to let him know what’s going on and most bosses are really grateful for getting intel about what really happens below them.

8. Respect your boss’ confidence

When your boss tells you something, they’re telling you and only you. There’s sometimes a tendency to let those around you, particularly the people in your team, know that you have a privileged relationship with the boss.

But that can be counter-productive. If you don’t keep your boss’ confidence, word travels quickly. Before you know it, you end up losing trust.

How do I know this? Well, that’s a mistake I made more than once in the early part of my executive career.

9. Know when to go

Many people labour in an impossible situation, hoping it’s going to get better. But if it’s that bad, it probably won’t.

Be adult enough to recognise this and make a plan to exit. Now I hear all sorts of excuses for staying under an impossible boss, “I owe it to my team to stay. I think things will improve. I’m rising above this for the good of the organisation”.

It’s all crap, right? Take the learnings from being in tough situations with bad bosses, but, don’t stay there until they beat the confidence and inspiration out of you. Don’t fear jumping. If you do it for the right reasons, and you do it sensibly, you can largely mitigate your risk.

Those are just a few techniques and tactics that you can use to try and get a better relationship with your boss and to mitigate the impact of a bad boss, because that’s what the managing up question is mostly about.

The best advice I’m going to give you today, is that as a leader, you need to make yourself almost impervious to your boss’ machinations. You’ve got to learn to lead your team well enough so that your boss doesn’t become a factor. And that’s how you get results.


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