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The Joy of Managing Up

joy at work Apr 10, 2022

Written by Roxanne Brown

For good reason, managing up gets a bad rap. When the concept was first introduced to me it was in the context of working for a difficult boss. Later it became a recommended strategy for getting promoted or keeping senior management happy. Applied in these situations it can feel like a manipulation tactic for getting something you want. Similar to the cynical reasons for developing a personal brand, it feels self-serving. The tendency is to see it as the game of workplace politics. Given the common emphasis of its use this way, I strongly believe this is at least part of why many employees crave authenticity in their leaders, the company they work for and in themselves.

But there really is a positive way to apply managing up and it’s about building trust.

Frustration grows with misunderstanding

Employees become frustrated with their boss when they’re not allowed to make decisions they feel they should have the authority to make and this disconnect can feel demoralizing. Eventually, they may come to believe they’re overqualified for the set of responsibilities they currently have and with that the disconnect gets wider. If they seek advice, managing up may be offered as a solution yet may feel like a wasteful and an inauthentic way to solve the problem. 

“Why do I need to spoon feed my manager with explanations for what I’m doing when they should just trust me to perform my responsibilities? Why do I need to stroke their ego so they feel important? Why do I have to spend time doing this babysitting when I could be focused on doing things that are much more productive? That is why I was hired, right?” I’m over-emphasizing the petulant child characterization for effect but you may be able to relate!

The answer to these questions is most likely about trust. A different question to ask yourself is, “how can I increase the trust my boss has in me?” I like this question because it leads you to more constructive and empathetic answers.

Your manager wants to trust you

More than likely your boss wants to trust you but for some reason can’t, at least that’s how you’re experiencing it. So, what might be in the way?

Some reasons might be directly related to you:

  • They have been unpleasantly surprised by a decision you made
  • They had to repair relationships or take some other difficult emergency action because of a decision you made
  • They don’t feel confident in your judgment yet 

Some reasons have nothing to do with you:

  • They have a personal connection to the areas you’re responsible for
  • There’s a personal identity connection, like it’s an expertise their known for or something they simply like doing
  • They’re at high personal risk if something doesn’t go well

Sometimes it’s a mix of both and often self-reinforcing: 

  • Your responsibilities are high-risk to the company because it requires a lot of judgment and your boss doesn't have time to learn how you apply your judgment
  • Your boss is staying involved in your responsibilities until they’re confident in your judgment but won’t let go enough for you to demonstrate it
  • Your boss doesn’t fully understand what you do yet is responsible for you doing it well

Trust is about a person’s willingness to depend on others for success. This willingness is influenced by several things: 

  • How risky the dependence is
  • How much risk tolerance you have
  • How well the other person demonstrates they understand and respect this dependence
  • How much their judgment is needed to perform the delegated responsibilities
  • How much variability and unpredictability are part of those responsibilities

Calculating how much we should depend on others for our success is something we do all the time.

Building their confidence in you

Your boss probably doesn't want to think about your work at all because that prevents them from doing other things. The more they can count on you the more freedom they have to focus on other areas of responsibility. So another question to ask is, “what do they need from me proactively so they don’t have to think about my work?”

You could proactively provide progress updates, for example, or you could send them a quick reminder about that upcoming important situation and explain how you’re working on a successful outcome. Think about what kind of information you would want if you were them. “What would give them confidence that I have it covered?” Try to think about this from their perspective, not yours.

Building trust in your judgment

Another trust situation to proactively work on is not unpleasantly surprising your boss. Here’s a situation to illustrate:

Let’s say in the past you had to make a decision in the moment that later surprised and upset your boss. You know that given everything you knew at the time it was the right thing to do. You may be frustrated because you feel your boss shouldn’t have had a negative reaction to your decision. You may feel your boss could never understand all of the nuances of the circumstances. You may even feel they’re out of touch with how things are today. Even if all of this is true it’s not a helpful mindset to grow trust between you. 

To repair and prevent this situation, scenario planning is a useful exercise to help your boss understand your judgment. This exercise is about you and your boss talking through typical situations you face in your work with you describing how you approach it, what you consider and why. You then ask them for their advice about how they would approach the situation, what they would consider and why. Talking through scenarios when you’re not under stress helps your manager understand how you apply your judgment and helps you understand what’s important to them. Later, when you need to make a decision you can think back to these scenarios. When you have to deviate from what you would normally decide, you can more easily explain to your boss why you made a different decision this time. The more you do this the better you understand each other.

Keeping them informed

Another thing to consider is how much information your boss needs to feel comfortable. You may want to give them a long and complete update but they may not have time to consume it. If they are unable to find time to read your update, that can cause even more anxiety for them. To manage this, one option is to give them shorter summary updates and include a link that’s an option for them to see a more detailed exploratory document. In this document you can keep notes and ideas you’re considering for things you know they’re particularly interested in. This way you give them the option to get a view into some of the things you’re thinking about but assuming they won’t be able to read it. This is transparency for you and is useful for preparing for 1:1 conversations. 

Whatever you do to approach information sharing, ask yourself what they would like to see and design with that in mind. Of course, you can ask them to tell you what they want but it’s better if you take the initiative and then ask them if it’s meeting their needs. Again, this demonstrates that you understand and respect their dependence on you.

Repairing the disconnect

Let’s revisit our original set of questions and answer them one-by-one.

“Why do I need to spoon feed my manager with explanations for what I’m doing when they should just trust me to perform my responsibilities?” 

Your boss may just need a little proactivity on your part to grow their confidence in you. Then they won’t have to think about it and are more likely to trust you when someone gets upset by a decision you made.

“Why do I need to stroke their ego so they feel important? 

Yes, egos may be driving a lack of trust but remember your boss is vulnerable to personal reputation risk. They’re also responsible for the success of the company, the work, and the team. That's risk too. If they’re dependent on you for their success it would be better for you to demonstrate that you understand and respect that dependence because it’s much more likely their trust in you will grow when you demonstrate that understanding.

“Why do I have to spend time doing this babysitting when I could be focused on doing things that are much more productive? 

A little proactivity goes a long way! If you make it a habit to give your boss the information they need to feel confident in you, the less concern they will have. The more confidence they have in you the more you can focus on being productive.

“That is why I was hired, right?”

Yes! To flip this on its head, if they don’t trust you to do the job they hired you to do then you become more work for them than the value you’re producing. It’s a pretty straightforward concept that hiring an employee needs to make economic sense to the business, otherwise it will go out of business. The company is making a bet by hiring you. Time will tell if they made the right decision. While this logic may seem cold, it’s also an argument you both share for building trust between you.

Time well spent

It takes time and attention to build your manager’s trust in you but it’s worth the effort for your peace of mind. If you have a toxic boss, that is a completely different situation. But if you don’t, applying this empathetic mindset can help you build the trusting relationships you need to have Joy at Work.

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