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?

4 Ways to Harness Your Inner Voice

I’ve been reading a terrific book by Ethan Kross called Chatter. It delves into harnessing one’s inner voice.  What struck me initially is that there was a study on whether folks believed they had a voice in their head.  My inner voice was thinking, “Well no, duh, of course we all have an inner voice in our heads.  And then I thought…wow…are there really people out there without a running narrative on what they want to do next, what they would have done differently and reliving embarrassing moments, over and over and over again?”  Turns out there are certain medical conditions that cause a quieting of the inner voice; but then I think, that would be awful.  So apparently, I want the inner chatter in my head, I just want to be able to use it to enhance my life instead of driving me down an anxiety rabbit hole.

As Kross writes, “However it manifests itself, when the inner voice runs amok and chatter takes the mental microphone, our mind not only torments but paralyzes us. It can also lead us to do things that sabotage us.” I love the image of my self-critic running around with a microphone and how much I want to either turn down the volume, or hopefully, throw the microphone out. 

4 ways to harness your inner voice:

  1. Journal.  I have personally found this to be very beneficial.  When my ex-husband turned my world upside down, I wrote reams of vitriol words to exorcise him out of my head.  There is no need to edit or summarize or be grammatically correct.  I just dumped everything out on paper. I wrote to myself for myself as well as to forgive myself for my misguided trust. I find that writing on paper is best for me and as reported by Aytekin Tank for Fast Company, “Virginia Berninger, a professor emerita of education at the University of Washington, says the same: “When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component stroke, by component stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.” Writing either in a journal or on sheets of paper really helped me turn down the inner voice.
  2. Fly on the wall. Recall past bad experiences through the vantage point of a fly rather than from your own eyes.  Adyuk and Kross studied the fly-on-the-wall effect in the laboratory. As written in APS, “In one series of experiments, for example, they asked volunteers to recall an intensely unpleasant experience—one that made them either very sad or very angry. Then they gave different volunteers different instructions. Some were told to visualize the experience through their own eyes, to immerse themselves in the sadness or anger and try to understand the feelings. Others were instructed to take the perspective of a fly on the wall—and with that perspective understand the feelings of that “distant self.” Those who experienced it from their own perspective, ended up reliving the bad experience.  Those who took on the fly perspective were able to be more subjective and analytical and were able to sustain this weeks later and, in many cases, had lower blood pressure.
  3. Second or third person.  When I coach clients, I’ve suggested using the second (you) or third (Suzy) person perspective when coping with challenges.  As Kross posits, “Use distanced self-talk. One way to create distance when you’re experiencing chatter involves language. When you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, use your name and the second-person “you” to refer to yourself.” I’ve noticed myself using this since reading the book. I’ve been in the middle of moving and I can start to get overwhelmed by the work I still need to do but I find myself saying, “You’ve got this, Cathy.  Step by step.” I find myself to be much more motivated and positive when my inner dialogue is focused on myself as a friend or third person.
  4. 10 years. When I first got sober, I used a program called the 30-day sobriety challenge and one of the most impactful tools was a meditation wherein I visualized myself in 10 years if I kept drinking alcohol. I rarely think about my future self and the impact of what I’m doing currently on what lay down the road. When I coach clients and they have a difficult decision or conversation pending I use a tool called 10:10:10. This is a concept developed by Suzy Welch for decision making. “Here’s how it works. Every time I find myself in a situation where there appears to be no solution that will make everyone happy, I ask myself three questions: What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years?” So, when inner dialogue starts nit picking or ruminating about how much I disagree with a recent corporate decision or deciding on a big purchase or moving to a larger city;  I ask my inner voice to think about what Cathy ten years in the future will think.

Kross refers to distancing throughout the book.  All of these methods require, in a metaphoric sense, to step out of your brain, your own self, by either by dumping it on paper outside of yourself, taking on a different, outside perspective as a fly, or third person, or by time traveling into the future. In all four ways the microphone is turned down and a different view is presented. How do you harness your inner voice?

“When you let go, you create space for something better” – Unknown

You’re angry because the meeting isn’t going your way.  You’re frustrated because your partner never makes the bed.  You smolder as the traffic piles up and will definitely be making you late to work this morning.  What’s next?  The self-critic pops in for a drive by of self-berating.  “My ideas stink.” “He doesn’t appreciate me making this bed.  I’m a doormat.” “I’m an idiot.  Why did I go this way?” Does any of this sound familiar?


It’s amazing how often my clients don’t realize the language they use when they talk to or about themselves. Client:  “I’m the only one my mother has.”  Coach: “So you are responsible for your mother’s addiction?”  Client: (smile) “Well, when you say it like that…probably not.” Coach:  “Probably?”  Client: (bigger smile) “Why does it sound different when you say it? Definitely not.” We all have a ticker tape of the little self-critic rambling on and on and on in our heads.  That little self-critic is taking up precious space that is valuable real estate for much better things.  It’s time to let go.

Here are some things that you will create space for:

  • Random acts of self-care.  I gave up on the news about two months ago.  I let go of the need to be constantly informed.  I am calmer.  I am no longer hyper vigilant waiting for the next shoe to drop.  With the thirty minutes I saved (actually it’s probably more like 2 hours if you count all the news links I would take randomly throughout the day to get the latest on the stock market or what ISIS is up to), I’ve added 20 minutes of meditation and self-reflection.  If I’m home early before dinner, I read or meditate.  Create the space for self-care.
  • Loving kindness for others.  I have given up the resentment when I do things for others.  I used to get angry when I did the dishes or made the bed.  I had to let go of my story that I was being a doormat.  I changed the story to be one of loving kindness for my husband;  instead of constantly searching for the balance of power of “I did this” now “You owe me that.”  It was exhausting to constantly keep score.  Now I am in the space of having loving kindness for everyone.  A sort of pay it forward of love and kindness.  There is no scoreboard necessary.
  • Liberation for myself and others.  It’s so easy to get wrapped up in your children’s success or failure.  To see it as a reflection of you; as an extension of you.  If he doesn’t go to an Ivy League school, what will the neighbors think?   I let go of the attachment to their outcomes.  It’s the same when you want to implement a new procedure at work and it gets shelved.  Oh well, move on.  A year ago I would have lost sleep over the shelving of the procedure and had mock arguments in my head with the nay-sayers for hours ad nauseam.  I am set free.  Embrace liberty.
  • Embracing uncertainty.  As I say to my clients, we all want control.  We all want to be the Wizard of Oz with our hands on the joy stick of life.  Fact is that there is no control.  This can be uncomfortable.  Very uncomfortable.  When I let go of control, I started to be more adaptable.  I was driving from Virginia to home last week.  The tire pressure indicator on the car came on.  I initially felt a jolt of anxiety.  I took a deep breath and realized that I could control my reaction.  I called my husband for a second opinion on a 29 psi and he told me it would be fine for the time being.  I did stop at a gas station and filled up the tire (I have not filled a tire with air in about 30 years).  No sweat. I didn’t panic. Let go the illusion of control and embrace uncertainty.
  • Space for openness.  When you let go of judgment, you make space for openness.  Self-judgment is debilitating.  Constantly judging others is also debilitating.  “I’m fat.” “She’s fat.” “What an atrocious dress.”  “He’s late again.” Judge. Judge. Judge. Judge.  I am not completely free of doing this but I am at least calling it out in my head.  “This is judgment.”  The first step is to label it.  Acknowledge that you are doing it.  Calling my judge out lets me embrace acceptance.  I imagine writing on my forehead with a sharpie and masking tape: Judge.  Label it.  Then let it go.  The universe is open to me (and you).
  • Detach from emotions.  I have been a stuffer of emotions.  I would numb them or stuff them deep inside.  I am learning to lean into the emotion and observe it.  Oh, so this is anger.  My throat is constricted and my head is hot.  Oh, so this is sadness.  My stomach is clenched and tears are streaming down my face.  I love the analogy that I am just the movie screen and that the movie actually being projected is my thoughts.  I am able to just be the movie screen and not the movie.  Let go of the thoughts that create the emotion and observe.

This has been a deep and deliberate practice for several months but I am reaping the rewards.  Create space for what you really want and let go.  It is better.