Managing upwards

A recent Gallup poll of more one million workers showed that the number one reason people quit their jobs is a bad boss or immediate supervisor. Gallup also found that poorly managed work groups are, on average, 50 percent less productive than well-managed groups.

So what do you do if you have a supervisor you are unhappy with? You can leave, of course, or become miserable and make their life hell. But you can also attempt to influence positive change. 

The challenge is how to manage upwards without them realizing you are doing so. 

The good news is that learning how to work with such managers can give yourself a sense of achievement and earn a very good reputation. Here are six ways you can develop a more positive working relationship with your manager.

Find out what is quality for them in their personal life - perhaps their children, a passion they have for a particular sport, or other interests they have. By building rapport and a more relaxed relationship over time, this helps to make them less intimidating, correcting any perceived power imbalance in your relationship. A more-relaxed relationship also enables challenges to be more easily discussed.

Try also to see things from their perspective. Managers are often under extraordinary pressure, so appreciating the challenges for them can help you be less likely to take their behaviour personally. 

By appreciating their motivators, this can help you to use the right language and connect the changes you want to see with what is also important to them.

You may be able to help them appreciate that the changes you want to see will help them achieve what they are wanting.

You can tread carefully if you like, perhaps waiting until you can catch them dong the right thing, or asking questions to clarify their expectations.

If you are concerned about them responding poorly to what you might say, you can also define the problem in a face-saving way - that everyone is under pressure, you are different personalities or have different ways of working, but you need to get on the same page for the future.  

Make sure the solutions also take their perspective into account. Some clever people even manage to convince their supervisor that the solutions generated were their idea. 

Some managers need more of a direct approach - letting them know specifically what you need or would find helpful. Of course, you also need to be open to hearing what they need from you. It shouldn’t be any surprise to know that open, honest and, often, robust conversations are typical of high-performance teams. 

If they are strong in project management, seek their guidance when you need help with this. If they are poor at giving support, adjust your expectations and accommodate this by seeking support elsewhere. If they are disorganized and late to meetings, offer to start the next meeting for them. If they change their mind frequently, document your interactions so you can refer back to them. 

People are watching you. And your attitude, work ethic, and your responses to this manager will either work to advance your career or sabotage it. 

By all means, whinge to your loved ones or support person as much as you like. But do put a time limit on it and limit who and where you do this venting. Then focus on doing your best at work. 

Alternatively, your notes will help HR or senior management appreciate the difficulty of your situation and how reasonable you have been in your responses. They may well decide to speak to your manager on your behalf or facilitate a work-it-out meeting to get on a better path for the future. 

Ultimately, you might decide to lodge a grievance or move yourself into a different team or workplace.  While these are valid options, I think it is a shame when the earlier options are not fully exhausted and frustrations are left to escalate.

Remember there are no perfect managers or supervisors. And managers are often doing the best they know how. The smart ones learn through their mistakes, of course. For other managers, just like our team members, we need to support them to become the best they can be.


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