In our two previous posts, we’ve talked about the skills—regulating oneself and communicating with others—that help a new manager become a successful team leader. But one often-overlooked aspect is how well the new manager works with his/her new boss and handles the expectations of other senior leaders.
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We’re talking about "managing up," which means being able to effectively communicate your concerns, goals, and suggestions to those above you in the management chain. Often we read about managing up with regards to a bad or difficult boss: one that sets unrealistic deadlines or even engages in bully-like behavior. But managing up is not just for the bad bosse—it turns out that even the most emotionally-aware, compassionate, and communicative senior leaders need to be “managed” to create the most productive relationship possible. And that’s a real opportunity.
Here’s how you can help manage your boss’ expectations, advocate for yourself and your workplace needs, and foster a healthier and more satisfying relationship.
Get to Know Your Manager… as a Human Being
You have your weekly one-on-ones and you may even share a meal outside of work from time to time. But what is your manager really thinking about and trying to achieve at work? How is their personal life going? Asking about your manager’s focus, inside and outside the office, will help give you the context you need to understand when to push for your projects and needs, or hang back and wait until a more suitable time.
Set Expectations...And Get Specific
Many conflicts between manager and manager’s manager are the result of unmet, different, or conflicting expectations. It’s important that when you check-in with your manager, you set these expectations early and revisit them often.
Ask them what they expect from you as a direct report. Do they want an email outlining the tasks that you’ve completed throughout the week? Do they prefer that you update them on assignments in person? Jonathan Levene at the Harvard Business School says to work with your manager to define what success looks like, and check in often.
Now that you’re a manager yourself, you may be working on projects and trying to achieve goals that haven’t been accomplished before, with new success metrics and vocabulary. You and your manager may be using the same phrase, but does it mean the same thing for the both of you? Get as specific as you can about the details of “what good looks like” when you’re taking on these new tasks.
Keep Your Cool… Even When You Don’t Want To
When you do have to broach a difficult subject with your manager, it can be uncomfortable at best or deteriorate into an angry blow-out at worst.
When you do have that difficult conversation, keep your emotions in check, even if that means just keeping a lid on how you express them through your facial expressions and vocal tone. A study by Adam M. Grant at the University of Pennsylvania found that employees who were able to regulate their emotional expression—particularly anger—were taken more seriously by their managers and were better able to express their concerns.
The first step to doing this goes back to something we talked about it the first post in this series—being aware of your emotions. Are you mentally ready to have a difficult conversation or would it be better the next morning? If you have to deliver bad news, what solutions can you bring to the table beforehand?
Be Compassionate with Yourself and Your Manager
Being a manager is a demanding, difficult and often stressful job. If you have a tense interaction, or maybe your manager isn’t as understanding about your concerns, take a step back and ask yourself what they might be going through that made them a little more gruff.
According to a two-year-long study of over 4,000 Danish public employees, subjects who feel that their workplace is more fair, experience far less stress and lower instances of burnout and depression than those who feel that they have less influence.
At Wisdom Labs, we believe that if you take the time and initiative to get to know your manager, check in with them often, and stay calm when the going gets tough, you can develop a healthy and happy working relationship. And if you and your manager are happier, everybody wins.
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 “Relationship-Building: Managing Up.” UC Berkeley Human Resources. https://hr.berkeley.edu/development/career-development/career-management/relationship-building/managing-up
 “5 Key Practices for Managing Up Effectively.” Levene Coaching & Consulting. http://levenecoaching.com/communication-skills/5-key-practices-for-managing-up-effectively/
 Winter, Jennifer. “Giving Feedback to Your Boss—Like a Boss.” The Muse. www.themuse.com/advice/giving-feedback-to-your-bosslike-a-boss.
 Grant, Adam M. “Rocking the boat but keeping it steady: The role of emotion regulation in employee voice.” Academy of Management Journal 56:6 (2013): 1703-1723.
 Grynderup, Matias Brødsgaard, et al.et al. “Work-unit measures of organisational justice and risk of depression—a 2-year cohort study.” Occupational and Environmental Medicine 70:6 (2013): 380-385.