‘Managing’ Your Boss: It Starts With Managing Yourself !

By Ms. Lindo Cherian

About the Author
hLindo Cherian is an L&D professional having diverse experience in Quality, Operations, Project planning and Change Management. An alumnus of I IM Kozhikode, she is actively involved with People development in their career progression. She is both Lean and Six Sigma certified and believes people and quality of service accentuates a Brand. A passionate reader, she enjoys books on spirituality and deems Yoga as a spiritual connect with God.

You don’t choose your parents or your Boss’-this was a quote frequently used by one of my ex-bosses and would often make many of my team member’s chuckle. Though amusing, this statement is thought provoking and a reality in today’s dynamic workforce. While team work or subordinate development are important parameters in determining employee / manager effectiveness, often the term ‘managing upwards’ is looked at with raised eyebrows. It is strange, that management books and journals talk about ‘Strategies to improve interpersonal skills’ and ‘How to be a good leader’, but there are very few who write about ‘how to improve ones upward management skills?’!. In what follows, I share with you a few learnings that I believe will help each manager take control in formulating ‘strategies’ to bring out the best in oneself in order to engage,connect and communicate better with one’s bosses. Just as a strong structure is the outcome of the individual strength of each and every building block, the strength of leadership depends on what team members, individually and collectively bring to the table. It is rightly said that, ‘A leader is as strong as the weakest member in his team’! Today, we are all striving to live a life of balance-work life balance, balancing people aspirations and organizational expectations, balancing the need to be accessible to hi potential employees while not seeming biased, balancing self goals versus department/ organizational goals.

The Existing Dilemma!
Today, we are all striving to live a life of  balance-work life balance, balancing people aspirations and organizational expectations, balancing the need to be accessible to hi potential employees while not seeming biased, balancing self goals versus department/ organizational goals. The list goes on. Take the example of a management trainee, who is expected to think out of the box and yet comply with the set norms. (S) he must understand the boss’s expectations. While (s)he may work independently, yet (s)he should ensure that the boss is kept in the loop. Even a middle management leader is expected to represent both-the interest of subordinates and the superiors. S(he) is expected to initiate/drive change and at the same time challenge weak decisions taken by the boss. Leaders are held responsible for everything that happens to their team, however they must constantly encourage their team members to act independently while taking day-to-day decisions or while solving problems. Balancing competing interests of the boss and one’s subordinates requires cognisant actions that will help one engage better with the boss.

While we speak of strategies, an important prerequisite to manage upwards more effectively is to understand oneself before trying to understand one’s boss. This helps in formulating self-management strategies (behavioural or cognitive) that are based on the social learning theory and influences and improves one’s own behaviour in relation to one’s superior. This, at a certain level helps create awareness in individuals for taking responsibility for their own motivation and direction rather than depending on leaders (bosses) to pave the way for better boss-subordinate relationship.

‘Strategies’ For Better Upward Management
Today, increasingly people believe that individual growth depends on oneself and not on external factors. This is also true when it comes to building a conducive and productive relationship with one’s superior. Trust, credibility, and integrity are a few starting points that help individuals develop and nurture mutually beneficial relationships with superiors. Some of the ways in which this can be achieved are listed:

  1. Identifying and understanding one’s roles and responsibilities:

Team members should find out what is expected from them. Individuals cannot be viewed as competent and reliable if there is ambiguity on what one is expected to do. In such a situation, the team member could land up working hard for the wrong goals. This may lead to the team member not being acknowledged/appreciated for all the hard work or results with priorities being questioned. On the other hand, proactively completing or initiating work on specific projects without being asked or reminded increases faith and confidence in the team member.

  1. Taking initiative to deal with issues and problems:

It is a good idea to take initiative to solve problems that impede achievement of business objectives. This involves highlighting concerns to the boss with necessary solutions, if any. While this is not free from risks, when done correctly, it can make the individual a valuable member and thereby increase trust and credibility.

  1. Keeping the leader ‘In the Loop’ with respect to decisions taken:

Team members who take initiative and deal with problems, should keep their leader informed of the decisions and actions. Else, it can be embarrassing for a leader to learn of changes from others. ‘Not being in the loop’ will not only reflect as incompetence of the leader but can adversely affect the leader’s own actions and decisions.

  1. Providing timely and accurate information:

One of the important roles of a team member is to provide or pass on relevant information to their leader, in a timely manner. Control over information shared and the way it is presented gives a team member power over the leader’s perception of events and the choices the leader will finally make. It is a good practice for a team member to acknowledge when one’s information is limited or questionable. In such a situation the team member can ask for time to verify the information, rather than pretending to have expertise on the same.

  1. Seeking honest feedback from the boss:

When a team member takes the initiative to seek honest feedback from the boss on his/her performance, chances are that it will result in an increase in mutual trust. The signal sent to the superior is that the team member is open to feedback and eager to learn. This also enables the leader to guide the team member and share specific inputs without having to mitigate it with a sandwich model of feedback.

  1. Being a change driver and supporting one’s boss to bring about change:

Leaders need encouragement and the support of team members to overcome resistance to change. Here, it helps if team members look out for opportunities to express support and offer to provide help/contribute by sharing work which can be discussed and delegated from the boss.

  1. Acknowledging efforts, expressing appreciation / gratitude appropriately:

Leaders too can feel unappreciated and taken for granted. It is appropriate to express one’s gratitude when a leader makes special efforts to help the team member with a problem, represent the reportees’ interest or promote the team member’s career. Similarly, it is also necessary to acknowledge help when the leader completes a difficult task successfully. All these acts can be seen as a form of Ingratiation. While it may be viewed as manipulation by a few, when it is given with sincerity, it can promote favourable relationships between a boss and his team.

  1. Challenging flawed plans or proposals:

While challenging flawed plans could be viewed as criticism, the way in which plans are challenged is crucial. When done in a respectful manner, it is one of the most valuable contributions by a reportee. It helps if one uses specific terms rather than vague generalities and avoids making personal statements. Wherever appropriate, it is a good idea to suggest getting reactions from a group of people before going ahead with the proposal.

  1. Resisting inappropriate influence:

Despite the power advantage the leaders enjoy, it is not necessary to comply with inappropriate influences or be exploited. It is fine to point out negative consequences of complying with inappropriate request. E.g. demand to complete a report immediately which has lesser impact compared to completing client report which otherwise could jeopardize an important project.

  1. Upward Coaching when appropriate:

Coaching is normally associated with a superior coaching his junior. However, reportees can seize opportunities to reverse coach when the boss is new and/or comparatively inexperienced. It is easier once the reportee has established a deep and trusting relationship. It is good to be alert for opportunities to provide helpful advice on technical issues. Sometimes, reviewing results together can help reflect the actions which were ineffective. This can be achieved simply by asking the appropriate questions.

The phrase ‘managing upwards,’ pops up in so many feedback and project evaluation discussions, that juniors may mistake the commonality for low importance. The reality, though, is quite the contrary. Effective upward management not only makes the lives of leaders easier, but it can make the life of the junior resource easier as well. Several managers maintain that their achievement is in part due to their upward management skills. The concept of managing upward revolves around a leader being confident in his reportees’ ability to self-manage. Simply put, it is the confidence that managers have that they don’t need to keep checking with their reportees to know that work is being completed. Such managers who are less worried about their reportees ability to execute their current tasks will be less stressed, which can ultimately result in their giving team members more autonomy, responsibility, or opportunity to outperform expectations.

Thus, reportees are more effective if they are active and independent rather than being dependent on their leader. They can make their leader and leadership more effective by being proactive and providing support and encouragement when necessary. Self-management is one of the strategies to be an effective and efficient individual contributor both to the team and business. So to be able to successfully manage your boss, the first step is to manage yourself!

Leadership in Organisations by Gary Yukl.

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