Why it pays to manage upwards

Personnel Today looks at the personal and professional gains from building a good relationship with your boss.

Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple, is revered as an innovative genius. But, since his death, it has come to light that he was not known for a caring management style. Walter Isaacson, his biographer, told an American interviewer last year that: “He’s not warm and fuzzy… He could have been one of the world’s worst managers.” And, more recently, it has been revealed that he once became so exasperated with one Apple senior manager that he called him a “f**kchop”.

Yet, no one disputes the Jobs’ success at leading Apple. Learning to manage your relationship with your boss – as senior Apple executives will have had to do – could improve your career prospects. Moreover, the sensitive relationship that HR professionals have with management makes it perhaps more crucial than elsewhere in the business to get it right. Senior HR managers and directors may constantly require the ear of the chief executive and may have been involved in hiring many of the senior team and know their salaries – all of which can create an uneasy tension that requires skilful management.

Get to know your manager’s style

One of the first things you should do is get to know your manager’s style, advises Alan Warner, who spent many years as a public-sector HR director reporting to chief executives and now runs his own consultancy company. “Before you do anything, get to know them, to understand their approach,” he says. This should include finding out how they like to communicate. Do they respond to highly detailed emails? Or do they prefer to be approached in person with an idea and they’ll get back to you later?

Misunderstanding something as simple as this could leave you feeling undervalued when the boss never responds to your email, when perhaps he or she prefers to speak to you face to face.

Getting the right balance

John Lees, author of How to Get a Job You’ll Love, believes that employees who are good at managing upwards get the right balance between asking for support, working independently and getting feedback. “They work out quickly what their boss needs and give back to them on those terms,” he says.

Key to this is getting to know your boss as an employee as well as a manager. What are their objectives and how do they fit into the rest of the business? Stuart Duff, head of development at business psychology company Pearn Kandola, suggests that we often award our managers more authority than is necessary: “People make assumptions about leaders, but they are only human. Treat them as colleagues and think, ‘If I were reporting to me and I need this, what would I be looking for?'” he advises. “People find it surprisingly hard to put themselves in their boss’s shoes.”

Knowing what to say and when

Good upward management also means knowing what to say and when. Always objecting to suggestions or detailing problems when you’re asked for your views on something will not smooth over your relationship with your boss. “Where people often go wrong is that they tell their boss what’s wrong, where the problem is,” says Warner. “I call these people the abominable ‘no men’. You’re better off saying, ‘To do this, we need to X, Y and Z,’ or ‘If we did this, this would happen’ – give them choices, draw scenarios.” This approach also works when you want to suggest ideas to more senior colleagues. Tell them your idea, advises Warner, but show them your vulnerability too: “Say something like, ‘I think this could help the organisation, but I’d need your support on X,'” he says.

But what about if you simply don’t agree with your manager’s strategy? Finding an appropriate method of challenging them is the best way to handle this situation, says Duff. “You’re there to deliver and move the organisation forward, and sometimes that involves challenging your line manager,” he says. Think about how you do this though – while putting your thoughts into email may seem like a “safe” way to share your objections, your manager will not be able to see your body language and may take something out of context. “A manager might think, ‘If you can’t say this to me face to face, then why should I trust you?'” he adds.

Building a fruitful relationship

Ultimately, building a fruitful relationship with your manager (and their managers) can have benefits that spread right across your working life. According to John Lees, these benefits include: extending your learning opportunities because you’re planting ideas; communicating your contribution to the organisation; and improving your visibility. You may also find yourself in a better position to ask for a promotion or a change to your role.

Most importantly, working well with your boss means that you are more engaged in your work and can do your job more effectively. “Commercially, you need buy-in from your manager to deliver your objectives – even something as simple as your budget and the resources you need – getting the support of your boss is crucial,” says Lees.

Sometimes, however, that relationship is simply untenable. Perhaps you really don’t share your manager’s values or you believe that something they are doing is unethical. In this case, the best solution might be to leave. Warner concludes: “It might be career-limiting to point out something is wrong, but at the end of the day, if you can’t live with it, then it’s time to get out.”

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