Audit Advantage: Managing Up

Managing Up | Audit Career Advice'He screams at me, complains about me to my team and my peers, like a sport. This week he wanted to have a meeting with me and I had to sit in front of him and hear that 90% of the people working with me do not want to have anything more to do with me. If I ask him why I am still on board in a leading position, he just says 'I am not in a position to decide''.

The paragraph above is an extract from a recent Audit Agony Aunt correspondent.  My response was a strong steer towards seeking third party support for workplace bullying.  While there is no legal definition of workplace bullying, according to the UK's Health and Safety Executive, experts believe that bullying involves negative behaviour, targeted at an individual, repeatedly and persistently over time. I pointed out that the screaming, the criticism of the writer to their team and the perpetrator's destructive attitude, which is clearly causing distress on an ongoing basis, would all fall within the definition of workplace bullying.

No amount of managing upwards is going to solve this problem. In fact one of the pre-requisites for effective upwards management is to have a receptive boss!


Bosses come in all shapes and sizes and many different guises

Leadership theory is prolific with models, styles and types. While you don't need to know all the detail, it can be helpful to understand where your own line manager sits on the continuum so you can flex your own approach accordingly.

So at one extreme you may have the archetypal autocratic, dictatorial, commanding leader.  Often seen as traditional (or old fashioned!), this totalitarian style likes to know everything and tends to make unilateral decisions without consultation, expecting full compliance.  If your line manager falls into one of these categories then your scope for upwards management is more limited.  But don't despair, in reality they may have a tendency towards these traits but will also exhibit characteristics of the more liberal styles - well at least some of the time!

At the other end of the spectrum the following types and styles give you significant scope for managing upwards: participative/democratic (values team input), affiliative (collaborative), laissez-faire (gives the team freedom) and coaching (supportive and developmental).  While each of these has the ingredients for positive management behaviour, none are perfect (who is?), but they can all be further enhanced with a dusting of upwards management.


What is managing up?

At one level it simply refers to building a strong, collaborative relationship with your boss, where your input is heard, valued and acted upon.  We, however, are inclined to take it a little further and suggest scope for taking some control by teaching and guiding your boss using techniques such as reverse mentoring and coaching.

Reverse mentoring is an up and coming trend pioneered by corporates such as IBM and Accenture, where younger ‘millennials’ mentor their more mature colleagues on social networking, the hottest technology and the Y generation mind-set. Non-directive coaching, on the other hand, has been around for much longer. Using active listening and skilful questioning it can be used as an upward facilitation technique and as such is perfectly placed for non-hierarchical support and intervention – perfect for getting your boss to see things your way!


How to do it: the three Ps of managing up

  • Purpose. Be very clear on what you want to achieve from upwards management.  Whether you choose it as a long term strategy or just for a particular issue, it can help to articulate your objective with clarity and specificity.  For example, ‘the purpose of the conversation is to make a successful business case to encourage my boss to provide quality team performance feedback, by quantifying benefits to the business and the costs of failing to provide it’.

  • Perspective.  Take some time to view the world through the eyes of your boss.  Not only will this support your case by appreciating their pressures, challenges and opportunities, it will also deepen your understanding and facilitate your own insights, as well as putting things into perspective.  In discussions, listen for meaning and look for ‘hooks’ to catch what really matters to your boss and align these hooks with your own rationale.

  • Personality We have already touched on this by considering leadership types but there’s plenty more you can do in preparation for successful upwards management by observing and understanding your boss, to build rapport and enhance empathy.  You need to become aware of their preferred operating style: how they think, how they communicate and how they like to be approached. Do they respond well in the moment, to conversations ‘on the hoof’, ad hoc or informally?  Or do they prefer to prepare for a pre-booked meeting with an agenda?  Do they like deep detail, to know everything and perhaps have a tendency to micro-manage?  Or are they more ‘big picture’, taking a high level executive view? Maybe you have a line manager who prefers to take in information through reading and digesting prior to debate rather than discussion first, followed up by written summary?  These are just a taste of the considerations that you might make before flexing your style to respond accordingly.


And some words of caution

Managing up is not about dumping or delegating stuff that you should be dealing with yourself.  Think carefully about where you choose to enlist the help of your boss.  Think of them as a valuable, precious resource, to be called on only for situations that explicitly require their influence or input.

And remember, this is all about managing up, not sucking up!  Bosses are human too; agreed they may be less than receptive to your overtures if they are of the dictatorial ilk, but they are far from perfect and, in most cases, they will recognise, value and indeed expect your input, whether through feedback, insight, or ‘managing up’.  At the end of the day, we are all on the same side!


Which topic would you like to read about next month?  Look over the list of topics in the original Audit Advantage article here and let us know your choice for the next topic we should cover.

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