Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour

Ep. #13 The Tricky Business of Managing Up

April 28, 2022 Jean Balfour Season 1 Episode 13
Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour
Ep. #13 The Tricky Business of Managing Up
Show Notes Transcript

What is it about managing up that seems so challenging?

Some people do it with ease, but most of us have difficulty with it at some stage in our career. There's a good reason for this. We were often raised not to promote ourselves, or to respect the hierarchy.

The challenge is that if we don’t build good relationships up as well as down the line, then we may miss out on opportunities for new roles or even promotion. 

In this podcast episode Jean will

In this episode Jean shares 

  • Insights into why we find this so difficult
  • How we can shift our mindset  
  • Practical ways to manage upwards without compromising our values. 

Looking for a coach - you can find Jean here

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Caroline Webb - How to Have a Good day


Hi everyone. And welcome to my podcast. Making sense of work. I'm Jean Belfor, a master certified coach and organization consultant. And I'm really curious about work and how we can be both successful and happy at work. In my experience, most people would agree with me. That relationships are at the heart of good organizational life. They see that without good relationships with their colleagues, with their peers, with their boss, with employees, it's hard to get anything done. And we also don't have such a good time. Most of us also accept that in order to influence people down the line or in other departments, we need to know them. They need to know us. We need to know what they're good at, what we're good at. And we need to be able to relate to each other. But in my experience, many, many people really struggle with the whole idea of managing upwards, managing relationships with seniors, either your own boss or your bosses peers or your boss's boss. And especially when it gets into the CEO, it's something so many people struggle with. I've been coaching myself now for more than 20 years. And so many times the coaching client comes to me because they've either been perhaps overlooked for a promotion or they didn't get a role that they were really suited for in their mind. And when we explore what happened, the most common reason this happened. It's nothing to do with their competence, their experience, their actual ability to do the job is because they hadn't done enough to understand and influence the people senior to them. It was all to do with managing up. And there's one example of this that stood out for me and, and helps I think to illustrate this really well. It was a coaching clients I worked with about 15 years ago now. And this client came to me. They were in a senior leadership role and they came to me for coaching because they'd been asked to not apply for their own role during a company restructure, you know, how it happens or. Pieces move. And we're asked to reapply for a role. And my client was really devastated. They were quite surprised. They thought they were doing a really good job and couldn't really understand why their boss had suggested that they weren't going to be able to continue in that job. During our first coaching session, my client decided to apply for the job anyway, to be courageous and just go for it because they thought that there was nothing to lose actually from going through the process. So we did quite a bit of prep for the interview and then the interview happened. So when I next met my client, I was pleasantly surprised, uh, as were they to hear that they got the role. And we were both very curious about this. So my client we'd back to have a conversation to find out what had happened. And he said, well, the thing is that before you came for interview, the only things I ever heard from you were things like, um, challenges, questions, things that you came to me to get solved. And I had no idea about all the good things that you were doing. It wasn't until you came to interview that I saw, actually that you were in major financial stability. You had very low staff turnover. There was good governance and high performance and fact, you were leading our best division. And when we explore this together, my clients said, well, you know, my boss is a busy person. I didn't want to waste his time. And so I made the decision that I. Keep all the good stuff. Just go with things that I was absolutely stuck on, that I couldn't solve. So as a result of this, all their boss heard was this person can't solve things. They only bring problems to me. And this example, as I've said, has always stayed with me because I think it's so beautifully illustrates what I'm talking about here. We, many of us hold this, let's not bother our boss, or we don't want to talk to them because we think like my client did that. They are too busy or that they'll know what we're doing anyway, so we don't need to talk about it. The thing is that there's a lot of advice for us in the word busy. Yes, as we get more senior we're covering more bases and therefore it actually makes it harder for us to look at what's actually going on. And so in this case, uh, my client's boss, didn't stop to look at the client and see what was really going on. And because my client didn't tell a story, nothing got seen. There are so many reasons why this happened. We often, I think, think that if we're doing a good job, it should speak for itself. Or that's, we'll just talk about what's going well during our performance appraisals, and at best, these are happening twice a year. And so that may be forgotten. And we somehow, I think hold a view that if we're humble, if we just get on with the job, then it will all be well. So, what is it about us and many of us that we find this so difficult, so painful, actually, to talk about ourselves, to manage our relationships upwards, to take the time, to see through the busy and make it important. We can often, as I've said, be leading teams that are performing well, we're doing a good job of working with our colleagues, but when it comes to our seniors, we suddenly lose our ability to relate in a kind of normal way. We hold back. We hesitate, we stay quiet. And for me, Sits largely in our social and cultural influences, particularly if we grew up in a very hierarchical society, we may feel that part about us from our childhood, where we heard messages of respect or authority, or don't bother daddy, he's busy or really important. The boss is always right. Um, and so we think that it's not okay for us to bother them and that, uh, influencing upwards in the hierarchy is against our nature. It's against our culture. I grew up in New Zealand, which isn't a particularly hierarchical society, but I certainly did grow up with the story that it was not okay for me to brag that it wasn't okay for me to talk about myself too much, because that would be embarrassing and not something you did. And so we hold this kind of felt sense. Hierarchy in our systems and this, for some of us overrides other sense that first of all, life and work is relational. And all we're talking about when we think about our boss as another person, like a human, we can relate to. When you also don't see people seeing your people as accessible, we avoid them. We may be project ideas onto them of what they're like and how they are. And so we just hold back and we stopped doing it. And then the time comes when a coach or a mentor, I see myself often doing this starts exploring these senior relationships, looking at how they're working, how good they are, and it triggers this discomfort. It triggers the sense of, I shouldn't be doing this. It's against my culture to do this. I can't do it. So it actually becomes quite physical, almost that comes becomes something that we need to avoid and that we don't want to. There's one psychological theory that I've found really helpful in helping me to understand this and shift my story on it. And also clients find very helpful in thinking about it. It's called transactional analysis. The reason it's called that is because it's looking at an analysis of transactions between people and it's. So it's often summarized as being called TA. I'm not going to go into all the details of it here today, but I wanted to pull out one particular aspect. In TA we talk about this idea that we've got three main ego states or a state of mind that we might be in. We have that at what's called an adult ego state. This is when we're present. We're in the present moment with functioning? Well, we're able to think, clearly we have conversations with people where even as they disagree with us, we're not triggered or hooked. We just get on and we find a way through it. We also have a parent ego state or state of mind, and this can happen to us when we either slip into believing that we're older or more senior than a person. And we start by perhaps behaving a bit like a parent. If you just imagine, when somebody in your teams made a mistake recently and you felt yourself triggered to tell them off. Or maybe somebody in your team has had a very upsetting event and you're triggered to look after them. That's a feeling of moving into our parent ego state. And then the third ego state is our child ego states, state of mind where we're feeling into being like a child. And when we're children, we tend to look up and seek advice from people we look for. What is the best thing to do The thing about the hierarchy is that I believe it often triggers this parent child experience. So whilst I believe that it's good for us to be in an adult to adult relationship at work, regardless of where we are in the hierarchy. Sometimes something happens at work. And I might begin to feel a bit childlike in the presence of my seniors. And then I stopped functioning at my best. And I stopped talking about things that are going well, or I see them as senior and very busy. And so I don't bother them. And all of this stops me. Having the ability to have an adult to adult encounter and conversation about what's going on at work, what's going well, what am I good at? What are my successes? I'm caught in a trap. I don't feel I can do it. I know I need to. And so I don't. So I believe that this whole idea of managing up is quite complex. It's tied into our sense of how we should be, how we should behave. And so to do it can feel really tricky. It can feel like we're acting against something. The challenge is that regardless of how hard it is, we actually need to learn to do it if we want to succeed, because it's such a key part of the way organizations work. And in our busy lives, we need to take control of our career and make sure that the people senior to us know what we want, know who we are, know what to expect. And starting with our bosses because like it or not, they have a massive impact on our career. They're the ones who choose to put a sort of stretch assignment or help us get the experience we might need in order to get the next role. They're also the ones talking to other leaders about us. If there are roles coming up, they are blocked things. If they trust us to help us get things done and so on. So our primary relationship of managing up of course is our relationship without boss. Now this can, of course be tricky because some of us have a very good relationship with our boss and some of us have. Easy relationship with our boss. And I'm going to do a podcast shortly on what to do. If your relationship with your boss is really difficult, but for this purpose, I would encourage that you, even if it's a bit difficult, you still take it seriously. Still see that it's really important to manage this relationship and to think about how can they get to know you? How can they support you in your. You'll also know, and you'll observe that people who are good at influencing upwards are often more successful in their careers, but there's a bit of a key here. Some of the reason that people often don't do it is because they see other people doing it in a way that they don't believe it's authentic or is not based on real evidence. And I believe that if we. I sit on evidence and talk about that a bit in a minute, but also we see it as relationship building, as we see it as a key part of that relational cycle and that we do it authentically, then we can begin to feel a bit more ease. And other reason why it matters is that essentially people will work with people. They trust that they respect and who they believe are capable of doing the job that they're going to be asked to do. And if we're not talking to our seniors about what's going on for us, what we're doing well, all of those things, they may not trust us with future roles because they don't. Any clue what we're doing. And my client's case is a really good example of that. Another factor that I think is really important here. Is that a bit like my client's story? If we're not sharing much, if we're not talking much about what's going on and particularly if we're not talking about. Going well, then we lose out and our boss loses out as well. So if we're only passing up the difficulties, the challenges, and if we're not coming in and saying, I just need to tell you, we've just had a great meeting with one of the clients. And as a result of that, we think they're going to move forward on this product. Well, if you don't tell your boss that then your boss doesn't have something to share with their boss and so on. And also they're not then able to think about, wow, that works. I wonder what it was that you did that made that work that we could replicate with some other clients, how can we take this good news and make it grow? And so I think holding back on what's going well on the good news on the things that we did that are helping. Actually has a negative impact on the organization, as well as meaning we lose exposure. But I actually think we're holding something back because if we share the good news and we help others to see things that we've done that have gone well, of course this benefits the organization, as well as it benefits. So with all this in mind, how can you do it? How can you find a way to relate to your seniors? To relate to, uh, people who are in authority in our organizations who are further up the hierarchy than us? How can we do this? Help them to understand our strengths and all that we bring to the organization. And sit comfortably with it. For me, it really starts by going back to the mindset that I've talked about. Working on what is the mindset that I'm going to bring to this. So I'm going to have to let go of some of my cultural assumptions from my childhood about how I should behave. And I, as I've said, use transactional analysis to help me with this because I believe that if I go into a situation. Aiming for it to be an adult to adult and counter, no matter how senior that person is, then when I'm sharing things, when I'm talking about what's happening, I'm going to come into it, uh, from a state of strength, from feeling good about myself and from seeing the other person as also human as across the table from me or across the zoom call from me. And we're in this together, we're in this together. The adults, even though in the hierarchy, we have a different position. We are both humans and adults together in the conversation. The other mindset that I bring to this, which I think is really critical is that because I see this as relational, I don't start from me because for me, the whole business of this managing up has just a key relational piece of our organizational life. I also believe that it's good for us not to start with me with ourselves, but to start by thinking about the other person in this case, it will be somebody senior to you and spending some time thinking about who they are. What's important to them, maybe what are their values? What are their ambitions? If you can find out. What do they enjoy and what are they worrying about? What's their boss shouting at them about or challenging them about what's the organization requiring of them, where are their challenges and their working day and so on. If I stand in their shoes, firstly, I see them as human also is coming into that conversation as being an adult with day-to-day challenges and things going on. But I'm also able to think about how I prepare for the conversation, because I might then see that there are things that I'm really good at that I'm doing really well, that I can offer them, that I can help them and support them and their career. And then it becomes a lot more give and take. It becomes a lot more about what am I sharing, but also how can I help you in your role in your senior leadership? And how does that. And so once we're able to kind of shift our mindset into this place, into this kind of adult, to adult and counter, then there are some very practical steps that we can take to help manage upwards a bit more effectively and do our best for it to work well, do our best for us to have a good relationship with. For me, this starts in my every day interactions with my line managers. And at the heart of these, I believe is the one-to-one meeting. I hold really strongly that regular one-to-one meetings are at the cornerstone of effective leadership and management. And again, I'm going to do another podcast on that at some stage. But let's just start with, if you aren't having regular one to ones with your boss, even if it's just once a month, see if you can find a way to get in their diary once a month, so that you've got a dedicated hour to talk to them. And before you go into those meetings, prepare really thoroughly. Think about what's gone. Well recently, what obstacles did you overcome? What's happening in your team? And look for perhaps of course, some of the challenges, things that are not going so well, create a picture of what's happened to this point and as well as looking backwards, look forwards and come prepared to talk about what are your visions, goals and objectives for the coming months. Are you clear about these? How do these connect and relate to your boss's goals? Um, and. How on track of these, where any risks, where any opportunities and so on, what you're doing is you're coming with a holistic view of what's going on. This helps your senior person to have a sense that you're on top of things, you know, what's happening, you're in charge of what's going on and you know, where the risks might be. And you've either got a plan or you're going to talk to them about those risks. But as with my client, you're also talking about what's going well, what's important. One key factor. I think in preparing for this conversation is to think also about your bosses style of communication. Are they a big picture or a detail person? So are they somebody who really just likes the strategy or do they like to see granular detail and thinking about how you present that one rule of thumb I generally have is that the more senior people become the less likely they're going to be in the granular detail. And the more likely they're going to be to want big picture. And as you're preparing for this, you might also want to be thinking about your big picture. So thinking about yourself, you know, what do you want them to know about you, your boss and other seniors? What are your career ambitions? What are your thoughts about how you're going to get there? What are your strengths? Um, what particular career successes and projects have you ha what particular career successes do you have? What projects are you most proud of? Maybe you've been doing some training recently, and you want to share that?, if you've had some good, positive feedback from a client maybe, or some teammates. It's worth thinking about that, but holding this big picture and thinking, where am I going? What is the story that I've got to help get me there? And how can I also share that with my line manager. If you are manager is in a different time zone or a different location, or as for many of us, we're now mostly working remotely doing this as even more important, regular one to one, sit right at the heart of doing that well, but I would also encourage you to. Uh, do a bit of communication lifetime, maybe send notes, maybe invite your boss onto a client call that you know, is, is going to be a good news story or ask for advice and guidance. Stay connected, help them to see what you're doing, help them to remain a part of the story. Finally on a sort of practical note, a key part of managing up is to find a way to talk about what's going well. And this is the thing that people can sometimes find really hard to do because we get that sense that we're bragging and that it's just not nice to talk about ourselves and what we're doing and the best way that I've come across for this as first of all, to start reading. Fact-based so think about things like, as I've said, client successes, team successes. If you can't talk about yourself, at least talk about your team or high-profile projects you've worked on. And I, I heard a great story, uh, from Caroline Webb. Um, Where she she's written a very good book called how to have a good day. But the example I heard from her is that she has a spreadsheet and on Fridays at 5:00 PM, she sits down with her spreadsheet and looks at the week. That's just gone and thinks. What went well, what happened this week? Not just the big successes, but the minor things that happened or obstacles that were overcome or challenges that were sorted out, whatever it was and write those down on the spreadsheet. So it might be that you closed a deal or had a really good conversation with somebody and resolved something. Maybe a project was signed off, or maybe there was a financial decision. That was good, whatever it is. Put them down, write down as many as you can. And then think about who might want to know about these and put their name or their initials behind beside it. And then think about how you're going to share it with them. So for some of these people, it would just be. Chat. You'll just put something in the chat saying, just want to let you know that this happened, but for some of us, your boss included, you might decide to write them an email. And one thing I've seen people do, and I think this comes from McKinsey is do a Friday afternoon email, which is a summary of the week. That's just gone. What went well? What were the challenges? What do we need to sort out next week, what's coming up that we need to keep our eye on, but anyway, that you can keep this really fact-based and based on what's actually happening, just gives you lots of data, lots of things that you can share that can support both your manager and yourself. Whereas we draw to a close. And what pickup one point I've talked mainly today about your relationship with your boss, but of course, many of you will have matrix reporting lines where you're reporting into one. Worst case three people. And so it's important to be thinking about them, but also there will be other people who have an influence over your career, who it's important to think about your bosses. Boss would be a good example of this. And one way that you can think about that is to do a stakeholder map. Basically brainstorm all the people who use sink might have an impact of where you're going and what you want to do and who might be able to influence the next stage of your career and then get creative with them. Maybe go back to your spreadsheet and think, okay, is there anything on the spreadsheet that I can share with X or if I'm going to be in a meeting with so-and-so, how do I make sure that they know about Y. Part of this of courses is making sure that you're not space filling, you're sharing things that you think will be helpful to other people, and that also help them to see what is your offering and help them to see that you've got something good to bring to the table. My main encouragement in all of this is for you to find a way to do this, which is good for you and good for the organization. It's really important to make sure your presence is felt. People know who you are, people know what you're capable of. And in this process that really should support your career. That my final message is. Don't forget as you're doing this to also bring people up behind you do the same for them. Talk about their successes, their good news stories and help to raise their profile as well.