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The art of managing upwards

Oct 01 2018 06:00

Done right, managing up is a win for all concerned. Not only can it put you on the path to promotion, it can help your boss shine while also boosting organisational effectiveness, innovation and engagement.

And managing up – which can mean anticipating needs and coming up with solutions without being asked – has never been as important as it is now, as workplaces are under increasing demand to adapt to rapid change.

Changing hierarchies

Workspaces are increasingly fluid, with more people working remotely, on contract, and consultancy bases – a phenomenon tied to the rise of the gig economy. The old ladder-style hierarchy, with its clear structure of leadership, is changing.

In the gig economy, people will increasingly find that they must work with a large variety of leaders at different times, some above and some below them; this constant rotation means that an ability to manage up is that much more important.

So how can people prepare themselves to be more effective at managing up?

1.    Learn to anticipate

Figure out what issues your boss is most stressed or concerned about. If you can anticipate a deadline ahead of time, come up with a list of solutions and/or an update of where the team is with the current challenge, you can help a boss move through challenges by providing information timeously.

There are many traps that one can fall into in the bid to make a boss happy - but essentially managing up is understanding where the stresses lie and taking. As the Harvard Business Review commented, managing up does not, and should not, have to entail sucking up!

 2.    Solve problems effectively

If you are going to say you have everything covered, make sure that you do. Have a multi-point plan in place to move an issue forward, demonstrating that you know the issue and have a well-considered solution.

Managing up may have moments of grand ideas or big money insights, but it’s primarily about understanding the bigger picture, recognising issues or opportunities, being able to prioritise information, and coming up with well thought out ways to take things forward. If you can provide this type of approach for your boss, you will be worth your weight in gold.

3.    Get buy-in

Even if your plans are impeccable, you won’t get anywhere if your boss is not open to your suggestions. Their buy-in is something you may have to manage carefully, particularly if it involves potential criticism. A good rule of thumb is never to challenge leadership in public, as it’s likely to lead to defensive pushing back (part of all leadership is managing egos, after all).

It is usually better to reserve disagreements or criticism for discussion in private. Along with this, it is usually most effective to couch these critiques in a clear understanding of the pressures or realities your boss is facing. In other words, it is much more likely that your input will be appreciated if you start with something like: “I know that the biggest pressure you have on you at the moment is the recent drop in the Rand value, so I thought it was important to tell you…”.

4.    Build trust

Like so many things in life, managing up comes down to building trust with management.

Dr Badri Zolfaghari, a senior lecturer at the UCT Graduate School of Business whose research interests include trust development, puts it this way: "Our disposition to trust, which is a psychological state, affects the extent to which we are willing to tolerate risk and uncertainty. Therefore, the higher our disposition to trust, the more likely we are to accept […] challenges."

Moreover, Zolfaghari adds that when it comes to trusting others, we assess trustworthiness based on our belief in their ability, benevolence and integrity – and this influences our perception of whether they'll be willing or able to address challenges.

Trust, as they say, is earned, and is essential in the process of managing up.

Understand what makes your boss tick, and what ticks them off, too. Chances are that you will disagree at times, but the trick is to do so constructively, without losing respect or trust.

5.    Give others a chance too

Of course, part of the discussion around managing up is understanding the environment “below” you. Are you allowing others to manage up to you effectively? Are you creating an environment in which a team can recognise the needs and pressures around you, and come up with solutions?

Who are you promoting and hiring?

Are you hiring people with an opinion (and the efficacy to let you know what it is) or yes-people?

Ultimately, managing up is about doing your best to help; you can only truly do that if you understand who you are managing and whether they are above or below you in the organisation.

While the easy trap for "managing up" can be "sucking up", it’s really about understanding the people you’re working with, the pressure they’re under, and how your work and their work feeds into each other.

Leaders who can do this are not only excellent at their own jobs, they “manage up” to their bosses in impactful ways and create more empowered and engaged colleagues below them. Any organisation that has leaders capable of this is bound to be more effective.

Dr Tim London is a Senior Lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership at the UCT Graduate School of Business. He has held leadership positions at the University of Cambridge and Queen’s University, Belfast. Dr London has a strong interest in developing leaders and will be speaking on Managing Up at the Finance Indaba, Sandton Convention Centre, on October 3, 2018.

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uct gsb  |  strategy  |  management
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