Hard Conversations of Managing Up – 10 Guidelines

Posted by on Nov 8, 2013 in Communication, Conflict, Effective conversations | 0 comments

Don’t have the perfect boss?

What do you do when it feels like your boss (or your board chair or whomever may be “above you”) isn’t managing you effectively?  What if they are  micromanaging?  Or eroding your authority?  Or constantly changing your priorities?  Here are some ideas to help you examine the situation, and then tackle the issue directly if the conditions are right.

Much as it’s easy to just blame the other person, interactions between people are created by all involved so you need to look at the component pieces.  Start where you hopefully have the most control:  with yourself.

When anyone’s behavior evokes your emotion, ask yourself what might be triggering the emotion in you – your past work experience, other life events, stress, etc.   Be honest with yourself, and maybe talk with someone you trust.

Then explore your own behavior and performance, again trying to be honest.  What are you doing (words, actions or behaviors (or “perceived” behaviors)) that could be provoking your boss’s response?

Once you’ve fully examined your side, shift to trying to see the situation from the other side.  What might it look like through the eyes of your boss?  What concerns could be a trigger for your boss, either current or past?  (Occasionally it’s stuff left over from the person who had your role before you.) What does the bottom line look like?

For example, micromanagement can come from a boss who knows your role too well, and finds it easy to see it in detail and from their own intimate experience.  It can come from a personal passion for the issue.  The same micromanagement can also come from distrust or fear.  Maybe you, (or someone you represent) has made tactical or strategic errors that have made your boss gun shy.    Perhaps your boss is under extreme pressure to produce and is just acting out that stress by increasing their involvement and control.

Once you’ve looked at motivations for your response, and motivations for your boss’s behavior, look at structural or organizational issues.  Close management, or apparent erosion of your authority can come from unclear definition of roles and responsibilities.  Are your expectations of your authority and accountability in alignment with your boss’s expectations?  In many organizations, there is “dotted line” accountability, or “matrix” management which can allow for fascinating collaboration and cross-functional work, and can very often complicate and cloud boundaries.

Once you feel you’ve clearly and honestly examined the situation from multiple perspectives, what to do?  How do you have the hard conversation with your boss?  First you have to decide if it’s worth the risk.  Is your boss someone who might be open to feedback?  (Often leaders lose opportunities for feedback as they move up the ranks so perhaps the boss isn’t aware of the impact of his or her behavior.)

Your goal should be to create the conditions in which your boss gets interested in what you have to say rather than defensive, or closed.  While you can find tips for being heard by your associates in one of my previous posts  that also apply, here are a few specific guidelines for a productive conversation with your boss.

  1. Address the issue with your boss when you feel you can control your emotions, not when you’re hot under the collar.  Ideally you want to be clear headed, and open-minded.
  2. Have the discussion face to face and allow enough time.  As much as you know you’ll be uncomfortable, do not try to ease your discomfort by rushing to address the problem by email, or in a quick “can I see you for a minute” type of encounter.
  3. Set the tone of the meeting with focusing on the positive outcome you hope for, perhaps explaining your goal of working together more effectively.
  4. Be open about how hard it is for you to have the conversation, and how you realize that giving honest feedback can be a risk for both of you.
  5. Present specific data (not judgments), so you can create a clear picture for your boss of the behavior that concerns you. For example:  “you attended three of my  Thursday meetings unannounced and spoke for 15 – 20 minutes in each meeting on a topic that wasn’t on the agenda.”    
  6. Share the impact on you or your team as objectively as you can.   Explain the impact in terms of your ability to do your work effectively.  For example:  “The impact was that we were not able to complete the agenda and therefore couldn’t finish the reports on deadline”.  Or, “Your interest in other topics has got me questioning whether my priorities for my team are in line with yours.”
  7. Avoid third party observations such as “Mary says you do it to her, too” unless that person is one of your team.  Keep the focus on what you have specifically observed.
  8. Be curious.  Ask questions about expectations, clarify goals, try to understand motivations.  Be willing to hear hard stuff as well as share hard stuff.
  9. Direct the conversation to explore new ways that both allow you to achieve your goals and meet the needs of your boss.
  10. If your boss has been open to your feedback and is willing to make adjustments, create a timeline for next steps.   When will you check back with one another?  What does your boss want you to do if you notice the unwanted behavior is returning?  For example, if your boss goes off topic because of excitement about a particular issue, you could agree on a signal only the two of you will understand.  Or you could agree that you’ll ask your boss about new pressures if you see signs of micromanagement.

Managing up is a sensitive process but if you can be as objective as possible, focused on outcomes, compassionate, and courageous enough to put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, you could potentially help your boss to become a better leader, help yourself, and help your colleagues.

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