Managing Up

Managing relationships is a key workplace competency. For various leadership levels, the focus has traditionally been on managing below one’s level of operation, yet it is equally important to be able to manage up, as team members are mutually dependent on one another to obtain the best results for the organisation.

The social intelligence framework provides useful personal and professional guidelines for developing interpersonal skills in terms of the ability to influence, service orientation, change management and communication skills. These guidelines assist in managing up as a different skill set is required for managing vertically and horizontally – a unique engagement methodology is required for a mutually beneficial relationship for upward management.

Two aspects to managing upward could be considered – general, informal investment in the relationship and specific, scheduled engagements. The former may include considerations around affirmation and appreciation, integrating solutions with challenges, transparency and taking initiative, but it is the specific, more formal engagements that can be more challenging.

The following may be helpful in guiding multi-level conversations:

Prepare – quality outcomes require quality preparation

Accuracy of content and facts – both from a content perspective (data, numbers, evidence) and a context perspective (big picture, historical considerations, multiple perspectives) – is essential for credible engagement and builds confidence often needed in multi-level conversations.

Set objectives – be certain of your desired outcome

Whether your objective is to offer a differing perspective, change a mind-set or just to be heard, be aware of what it is you need from the conversation in order to remain focused and avoid unmet expectations resulting in disappointment. Set the tone in the invitation or at the beginning of the conversation in order to manage these expectations.

Question – remain open and curious

Using coaching skills, and specifically questions, to guide the conversation reduces the risk of being interpreted as knowing better. Ask neutral questions rather than “why” questions. Instead of asking “Why can’t it be done this way?”, rather ask “What value could there be in doing it like this?”. The skill of engaging from a place of curiosity rather than persuasion is key to maintaining an equilibrium of relationship and perspective.

Be in the moment – being present is an awareness, a skill and a discipline

Consciously remaining relevant to the topic and avoiding going down unhelpful or historical tangents requires disciplined awareness. Constant reference to prior incidents, patterns of thinking or behaviour detract from the objectives of well-defined conversational processes. Being flexible and open is a core trait of maturity, based on integrated self-awareness and self-management.

Don’t avoid – withdrawing detracts from investing

Avoid postponing or not engaging in courageous conversations due to considerations of risk – risks of no change, your intended outcome not being achieved or further conflict. Manage risk and fear through recognising that you have chosen to engage in this conversation because you believe in it.

If statistics are correct, then managing our managers is pivotal to workplace fulfilment. One of the top three reasons people leave organisations relates to challenges with their direct line managers. The return on investment in managing our managers – as opposed to accommodating, tolerating, avoiding, subservience – is therefore vital to personal and professional meaning and satisfaction. Remember that we cannot manage what we do not know.

Sue Bakker is a facilitator and coach at TowerStone, a leadership centre whose vision focuses on empowering leaders to build a values-driven culture for sustainable success.

This article is republished with permission from The Witness where it was first published.

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