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?

Gender bias at work. Who is making the coffee in your office?

In every office I have worked in, it’s always a woman making the coffee. At every meeting, it’s been a woman keeping the notes, all the guys beg off (if they are even asked) because their handwriting is supposedly illegible. It’s also a woman who is watering the plants, refilling the printer paper and making sure there are donuts for the morning meeting. I have been a part of the problem as well; I’ve made thousands of pots of coffee and ordered cake for the retirement party for years. In an article by Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg for the New York Times called Madam CEO, Get Me a Coffee, “This is the sad reality in workplaces around the world: Women help more but benefit less from it. In keeping with deeply held gender stereotypes, we expect men to be ambitious and results-oriented, and women to be nurturing and communal.” So while I’m making coffee and taking notes, some guy is getting the promotion. Yep! Gender bias at work.  Who is making the coffee in your office?

In an article by Dana Wise in HR Magazine called Bringing Bias into the Light, it turns out that some of this gender bias is unconscious. I might be the breadwinner in my family and my husband may be the one who makes the coffee but when I recently took the Implicit Association Test (IAT) on Gender – Career, I discover I have a moderate bias towards men being associated with the workplace and with women being associated with family and the home. Me! My mother was the only person who worked outside the home on my street in the mid-sixties and my father dutifully did the dishes every night but regardless, I subconsciously associate men with the workplace.

So here are some ideas on how to make work a more even playing field with opportunities for everyone to change:

1. Discover. Take the IAT and discover if you have a bias. Odds are that you have a least a slight bias because the overwhelming majority of assessment takers did. You can’t know that you have a bias unless you find out where you are on the continuum. I tested into the largest cohort (32%) with a moderate bias. Now that I am aware of it, I can look at more objective data like scoring applicants on years of experience, certificates held and level of education. You don’t know what you don’t know.

2. Equalize. Make sure tasks in your workplace are handled equally by both genders. In the Times article they suggest “Assigning communal tasks evenly rather than relying on volunteers can also ensure that support work is shared, noticed and valued.” So ask Joe to make the coffee on Tuesdays or have the minutes be taken on a rotating basis. I actually knew a Vice President who did this with his team and one of his managers was responsible for setting up the minutes and agenda on a rotating basis (two male managers and one female manager). Share the load.

3. Public. Make sure that the efforts are public. In the article, “studies demonstrate that men are more likely to contribute with visible behaviors — like showing up at optional meetings — while women engage more privately in time-consuming activities like assisting others and mentoring colleagues.” This can be especially difficult for women. We are much more comfortable going behind the scenes and making it look easy. So guys out there? Make sure your female co-worker is being acknowledged publicly for pulling that project off. Make it public.

4. First. Women need to put themselves first. I can remember reading in Sheryl Sanberg’s book “Lean In”, that women will advocate for everyone else but themselves. So become an advocate for yourself. Sometimes I think it’s a great idea to imagine that you advocating for yourself fresh out of college. It’s easier if you think about yourself in the third person. I can ask for a raise for my twenty year old self but not for my middle aged self. According to Grant, “numerous studies show that women (and men) achieve the highest performance and experience the lowest burnout when they prioritize their own needs along with the needs of others.” This means that the women out there need to put themselves first, if not equal to everyone else. So don’t wait to be the last to grab a cookie from the plate, grab it first.

I have to say that as I write this, I asked both of my children to take the IAT (it’s free by the way). I am curious to see how both my son and daughter measure up on the Gender – Career assessment. I really hope that I have been an example of a hard working career minded women and that, on some level, it has seeped into my children’s subconscious mind. I’m guessing that it’s difficult to move gender bias in just one generation.