Organisational Change Management Volume 2

Managing Upwards

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"...The goal of managing up is to develop a pattern of interaction between your boss and you that delivers the best possible results for your organisation (and by extension, for each of you). The accommodations you make help you gain better insight into your boss's context: his strengths and weaknesses, the pressures he feels from above and from his peers, and the combination of organisational and personal objectives he's trying to meet..."

Liz Simpson, 2002

. Managing-up should not be seen as a self-centered, getting-my-way approach, ie manipulative boss management. It should be seen as helping your boss and the organisation

. Your relationship with your boss should be just as important as your relationship with key stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, etc. It should be one of mutual dependence.

. Types of managers vary from counter-dependent, ie the boss is seen as the institutional enemy, to dependent manager, ie staff behave in a compliant fashion even when they know that their boss has made a poor decision.

. The boss-subordinate relationship involves a power differential, ie your boss can dismiss you but you cannot dismiss him. Thus the dynamics of the power differential will influence your interaction with your boss. At times there will be a degree of frustration.

. Managing upwards should include these 2 approaches

i) an understanding of goals and expectations - staff should clarify the top 5 responsibilities with a boss so that both understand and agree on what those priorities are. Remember:

"...don't take information at face value. Don't make assumptions about areas in which you lack information. Regularly seek clarification and updates about your boss's objectives - concerns and priorities have a way of changing over time. In addition, don't focus only on organisational goals. Your boss's personal objectives can have just as much effect on how satisfied he is with your performance..."

Liz Simpson, 2002

ii) pay attention to clues in your boss's behaviour -

"...observing..... - paying special attention to her preferences about such things as meetings and modes of communication ‐ offers many clues about how best to interact with her..."

Liz Simpson, 2002

. Remember:

- impressing the boss should not be a primary goal, as the boss needs more than this, ie she/he needs to have a trusting relationship

- managing upwards is not about changing your personality or giving into your boss all time

. Answering the following questions will help to evaluate your boss's working style

- does he/she prefer a more formal, organized approach? (NB makes sure the meetings have set agendas)

- does he/she become impatient or inattentive when you change the topic at hand? (Ideally, keep digressions, background detail and informal chitchat, etc to a minimum)

- how does he/she process information best? (If he/she prefers to study it himself/herself, give it to him in written form. If he likes to be able to ask questions, present to him in person)

- what is his/her decision-making style? (If he/she is a high involvement manager, then touch base frequently on an ad hoc basis. If he/she prefers to delegate, keep him/her informed of important changes and important problems, but handle the other details on your own. Generally, does he/she want more detail? This can mean that he/she wants his/her preferences included, and/or he/she has given more thought to the issues and has failed to keep you up to date on the latest thinking. In this situation, you must take the initiative and ask your boss to frequently articulate his/her thoughts. Furthermore, you should document these conversations with follow-up memos, as they will provide opportunities to correct any misunderstandings.)

- how does he/she handle conflict? (If he/she seems to thrive on it, be prepared for lively, spontaneous exchanges; if they become heated, it is not necessarily a sign that he/she is angry with you. If he/she prefers to minimize conflict, respect that preference without falling into the trap of telling him/her only the good news. Bosses need to know about failures and important problems. Sometimes it may be best to inform them in private.)

. One of the most important element in managing upwards is to let go of your own ego.

"... remember, it is not about you, it is about them..."

Gary Ranker as quoted by Fiona Smith, 2009t

This may mean ignoring their bad behaviour until you work out what is behind it. It is best to not take it personally and/or show emotions.

It is important to maintain your sense of humour as this will defuse the situation.

If you want to talk directly about their behaviour, talk to them about a specific incident as if it was all your fault as you did not understand what was required by them. Explain that you need more clarification so that you are less likely to misunderstand.

. Most dysfunctional managers don't see themselves as bullies. They would describe themselves as "hard taskmasters" or "people who don't suffer fools lightly". Furthermore, most are surprised when they learn about the impact of their behaviour on others in the organisation.

. According to Gary Ranker (Fiona Smith, 2009u), there are 6 types of difficult bosses:

i) bully (the best way to handle them is to minimize contact with them; don't be confrontational; take notes of your conversations with them; try not to talk with them when they are stressed)

ii) micromanager (the best ways to handle them include giving them more information than they asked for and as many as possible unsolicited detailed progress reports; usually they are control freaks, so be proactive and keep them fully informed)

iii) indecisive boss (the best ways to handle include asking questions for clarification to help them understand what it is they wanted to and what is their preferred action; you can help them identify the problem and give suggestions on solutions; need to be careful that you are not setting yourself up to the scapegoat if your suggestion(s) fails)

iv) paranoid boss (the best ways to handle include over communication; never surprise the boss; don't appear to be threatening in any way; don't acquiesce to their attacks as they will see you as an easy target; let them know that you are not a threat to them; avoid getting into arguments and don't contradict yourself)

v) grandiose boss (the best ways to handle include exercising an unusual amount of tact to protect their fragile self-image, esteem and worth; don't correct them unless it's a matter of great importance and urgency; don't empathise with them; don't criticize them; don't gossip about them)

vi) dysfunctional manager (the best ways to handle include documenting everything; make sure you have independent witnesses; confirm the things in writing; maintain good relationships with your manager's boss and clients, otherwise it will be viewed as disloyalty

. Some tips for managing upwards to a boss who is difficult to handle

- do your homework (check out the boss's past by finding out who has worked successfully with him/her in the past and how they handled him/her)

- work hard (match your boss's energy and drive to get his/her attention, as well as working smarter)

- laugh at their antics and earn their respect (be prepare to use humour as a technique against being dominated by him/her)

- call his/her bluff (most useful when your boss is mixing truth and fiction, ie stating "I don't believe that" will buy time and "puts the ball back in his/her court"; demonstrating that you are not an easy push-over)

- stick around (too often the temptation is to quit; on the other hand, learning how to handle him/her can provide invaluable experience)

Some issues around managing upwards

. It can be risky to try to change someone with more power than you. On the other hand, you need to remember

- power is a quality of a relationship (power is something you give to another and you can take some of it back)

- some of the power your boss uses is bluff (sometimes the only way to find out how much is real is to call the bluff. Obviously, there are risks in doing this)

. Managing upwards is manipulative. To handle this, you need to reveal your intentions and motivations

. Damaging your relationship with your boss. If you challenge your boss, initially it could be awkward. On the other hand, if you are not manipulative and use good listening skills, you could improve your relationship with your boss in the medium to long-term.

. It is best to use face-to-face communications in order to evaluate non-verbal responses. Furthermore, it is more flexible as it allows you to adjust more readily to the situation as it develops and is more likely to achieve mutually-satisfactory outcomes. If you are required to put your proposal in writing, a face-to-face discussion will have many advantages before writing the proposal, ie you can find out what is important and what the reactions will be, etc.

. Once your boss has decided something, challenging it could make your boss more determined. This is most obvious in a bureaucratic type of organisation. Sometimes it is better to not waste too much time or effort on a decision that has already been made. It is easier to fight the next decision, not the last one. Good managing upwards and effective communications are future-orientated.

. Your boss can have the final say and can demand you do as you are told. If what is demanded goes against your conscience, then it may be best to contemplate a career change.

. Unable to influence and/or change their awards and penalties. You can either learn to live with it or inform your boss of the cost to you, or make a career change.

. It can be very time-consuming and involved. It is your decision about whether or not you do anything about it.

(sources: Liz Simpson, 2002; Roderick Kramer, 2006; Bob Dick, 1990)


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