If you (like most people) work for a boss, you’ve probably noticed that he or she isn’t perfect.
Extreme boss imperfections (OK, pathologies) are the source of great distress for many workers, and high rates of turnover at many companies.
But even good bosses — the ones you admire, respect, and generally like to work with — are imperfect in ways that can sometimes make your job more difficult. For example, even good bosses sometimes:
- Load you up with more work than any human being could get done;
- Give instructions that are confusing or contradictory;
- Express their emotions in unfortunate ways; or just
- Fail to notice and appreciate what you’re contributing.
What can you do in these situations?
Learn How to Manage Up!
Assuming that your boss is not a psychopath (and that’s a totally different problem), he or she will be willing to accept some guidance and/or feedback from you if it’s presented respectfully, in a way that benefits you both.
So how do present your problem in that way?
First, it depends on whether your boss likes a more businesslike or more personal approach to communication. Linguist Deborah Tannen calls these communication styles report talk and rapport talk:
- People who prefer rapport talk like to establish a connection before they do business. If your boss greets the janitor by name, asks how you’re doing (and really wants to know), or has the Helper public speaking personality, he or she may prefer rapport talk.
- People who prefer report talk like to get down to business quickly, and can be polite but remote if you mix up personal and professional conversations. If your boss looks confused (or worse!) when people mention their feelings during a work session, he or she may prefer report talk.
Why does this matter? It’s your guide to crafting a “manage up” communication!
Manage Up by Reporting a Problem, or By Establishing Rapport
Let’s say that you’re totally overwhelmed with work, and yet your boss keeps piling it on.
If he or she is a rapport talker, you might present this as a personal issue:
I need your help with something. I know you’ve got a ton of work to get out, but every time a new file hits my desk, I get even more anxious and confused about what to do first.
But a report talker would prefer to hear something less personal, such as:
The number of projects we’re handling makes it hard to focus and do my best. Will you help me establish priorities and timelines so that I can work more effectively?
When You Manage Up, You are Educating and Informing Your Boss
As you can see from these report/rapport talk examples, managing up isn’t primarily about giving your boss ready-made solutions (though you’ll want to do that when you can).
Managing up is primarily about stating what you need to perform your job well.
Lots of people don’t feel entitled to bring what they need into workplace conversations. But if you don’t get what you need to do your job well, everyone loses — you, your boss, and your company — and if you do get what you need, everyone wins.
With that in mind, see if any of these “managing up” statements can be adapted to your situation:
I know you’d like me to talk more on client phone calls, so let’s decide in advance where I can take the lead.
I can get this done by 5 o’clock, but I need you to tell me what can wait until tomorrow. (Or: Is this more important that the rush job you gave me this morning?)
I want to keep you up to date on my progress. How about if we check in first thing each morning? (This is for the boss who wants a progress report 16 times a day.)
I know you’re busy but I can’t get this job done without your guidance. How soon can you give me ten minutes to talk about it?
I know you get frustrated when I make a mistake, but it would help me if you told me about it in private.
Of course, there are many other scenarios, but you get the idea here: A clear, professional statement of reality (what needs to be done, what you need to succeed) will land well with many, if not most, bosses.
So manage up by stating what you need, identifying issues, and asking your boss to help generate solutions.
This is the way true leaders behave, and your show of confident strength may well lead to benefits that go far beyond just solving the current problem!