5 Secrets to Managing Up

I’ve been a leadership coach for over ten years.  Most of my clients are either middle managers or high potentials and one of the biggest issues clients bring to me is how to manage up.  Managing up can be described as a method of career development that’s based on consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss.  It can be a struggle for newly promoted managers or newly acquired managers or individual contributors looking for a leg up on the next project or promotion.  Interacting with your boss can be fraught with insecurity and vulnerabilities.  On one hand you want to be confident and knowledgeable, but you also don’t want to step on any toes or overreach. You want to be persuasive but not overbearing.  It’s a delicate balance.

Here are my five go to tools for managing up:

Power Pose

Ever since I read Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, and viewed her Ted Talk on the power pose, I have suggested it to my students taking the SHRM-SCP exam, my clients applying for a new position and to my clients who are headed into a managing up conversation with their boss.  Basically, the mind follows what the body says.  If you stand like Wonder Woman or Superman (think hands confidently on your hips, shoulders back, feet shoulder width apart and head held high) for two minutes, your brain starts to follow what your body is telling it, i.e., you are a bad@$$. I have personally done this before a first date, in a bathroom stall before a job interview, and right before a public speaking engagement.   It’s been proven that your cortisol (stress hormone) goes down and your testosterone increases.  Increases in testosterone helps improve mood and health in both men and women.  Before you head into that uncomfortable conversation on getting on that plum project, try the power pose.

What would it take?

Over thirty years ago, I wanted to get a promotion to a General Manager position for the restaurant chain I was working for at the time. I knew it was between me and a guy named Randy. Randy had more longevity with the company and we both had recently been through a management development course. I set up a meeting with my boss’ boss and said “What would it take for me to be the next General Manager?” He suggested a few things like learning the inventory system so I could handle month end on my own.  Inside of three months, I was promoted over Randy.  I firmly believe that if I hadn’t asked “What would it take?” I never would have gotten that promotion. From reading the book “How Women Rise”, I know that women can assume that their boss knows about their hard work, merits and aspirations.  By asking, “What would it take?” you are clearly putting a stake in the ground of what you want and asking for support in getting there.

Third person

Talking about yourself in the third person can help control your nerves before having a one-on-one with your boss.  It’s easy when we use self-talk in the first person to trash your self-esteem.  “I can’t believe I’m late again, I’m an idiot!” “Ugh, I’m never going to get that promotion, I’m not good enough.” When I switch to the third person, I’m more careful, positive and respectful as if I’m talking to a good friend. ” Cathy, you’ve got this.” It’s also helpful in keeping rumination at bay.  It puts distance between you and your objective and calms your nerves.

Excited and Curious

I’ve learned to rephrase anxiety or concerns into excitement or curiosity.  It’s a way to reframe from disempowering thoughts like “I’m too nervous to talk to my boss about the widget project” to empowering thoughts like “I’m excited to talk to my boss about the widget project.” I change my self-narrative from “I’m afraid to move to a new town” to “I’m curious to move to a new town.” The use of the language we use in our head can be either debilitating or empowering.  I try to use empowering ones.

A few strong points

I recently read Think Again by Adam Grant. In the book he takes a look at Harish Natarajan who has won three dozen debate tournaments.  One of the key takeaways from Natarajan was to focus in on just a few solid points to persuade your audience, in this case, your boss. Before reading the book, I could barrage my boss with twelve reasons why we should add a new benefit for our employees.  It turns out that if there is weakness in a single reason, it causes collateral damage to the rest. The audience (your boss) focuses on the one weakness.  If you base your rationale on one or two solid reasons versus eleven good reasons and one weak reason, the solid reasons win out.  It’s quality versus quantity.  Focus on one or two strong points when having the managing up conversation.

It’s ironic that most of these secrets are about managing yourself and your own mindset instead of managing your boss or your boss’ boss. Heading into a conversation with your boss is more of an inside game on controlling your clarity of thought and emotions through your own self talk. What are your secrets to managing up?

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