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How to Manage Up at Work

Years ago, I was on the digital advisory board of a large newspaper company. We had four meetings per year, after which, we’d go for a board dinner. At one of these dinners, during a discussion about something or other, the Chair of the Board turned to me and said with great confidence, “You have a problem with authority”.

I have no recollection of what I said to prompt his comment, but I do remember having a moment of clarity. He was right. In general, I didn’t trust that those in authority had my best interests at heart, nor that they were capable of making good decisions.

I’m Judy Sims, and I have a problem with authority.

Lots of us do, in lots of different ways and for lots of different reasons. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something that needs to be managed. Because left unchecked, an inability to trust, respect and work with those in authority can lead to all kinds of mischief that will seriously derail your career.

A problem with authority presents differently for everyone who has it. For some (me), it’s all about rebellion and resistance. For others, it’s about obsequiousness and deference. In both cases, we’re operating from a place of fear and perceived powerlessness. You don’t want that, and believe it or not, neither does your boss.

But let’s face it, sometimes, we do see those in authority struggle. Maybe they make silly mistakes. Maybe they waffle too much. Or maybe they make decisions without consulting those who actually know what’s going on. Maybe they themselves have a problem with authority and either fight the higher ups on everything or go along to get along so that their boss never gets mad at them.

And maybe those things (rightfully) drive you nuts because they make your job so much harder.

It happens. So, we have to deal. And the best way to do that, is to manage up.

Here’s how.

Remember that your boss is a person.

Sometimes, especially when we have a problem with authority, we forget that our boss is an actual human being. They have needs and values and desires. They have families they love and hopes and dreams and fears.

It’s the fears that get us into trouble.

Unless there’s a clear and present danger (such as a cougar about to leap out of the woods to attack us), when we’re in a fear state, it’s usually due to our needs for certainty and significance.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either of these needs. Our need for certainty is simply the need to feel safe and secure. It keeps us from putting ourselves in needless danger and from making dumb-assed decisions. Our need for significance is simply the need to feel validated and to know that we matter.

The problem happens when we become overly attached to those needs. If we require too much certainty, we can resist change, stay in the same job or company for too long, or avoid even reasonable amounts of risk. If we require too much significance, we can become boastful, controlling and resistant to thoughts and opinions that are in disagreement with our own.

When our needs for certainty and significance take precedence, we are in what I call a contractive cycle. From our place of fear, we begin to prioritize our own personal comfort over the truth of what’s happening around us, and we make poor assumptions, bad decisions and engage in behaviors that drive our employees nuts.

Here’s the thing though. Unhealthy attachments to cert and sig don’t arise out of nowhere. They are the result of situations we’ve found ourselves in in the past. They are the result of not only bad things that happened to us, but also good things that didn’t happen for us.

Your boss is a person who has had a life filled with positive and negative experiences, and those experiences have shaped them. We’re shaped by our families, our communities, the institutions we’re a part of, as well as cultural social norms and even historical forces.

When you see it this way, perhaps you will find compassion for the human that is your boss arising within you.

Compassion is at the heart of managing up.

Remember that you too are a person.

You know all that stuff I just said about your boss? Well, it’s true of you too.

You have needs and values and desires. You have a family you love and hopes and dreams. You also have fears and traumas. You too were shaped by external forces. You bring all this stuff to work where it mixes or clashes with your boss’s stuff (and everyone else’s stuff for that matter).

And sometimes when these clashes happen, we find ourselves feeling triggered. Often, we don’t even understand why we’re triggered, but there it is. Sometimes our boss reminds us of one of our parents, or a sibling, or a middle school bully or an ex-spouse. And suddenly, we’re in survival mode, where it’s difficult to see the truth of what’s really happening around us. We shut down. Creative solutions are hard to come by.

So, the next time you find yourself bristling at authority, rather than allowing your brain to run off into survival mode, ask yourself these three questions:

What am I predicting?

Is it true?

What is the best path forward?

You might be surprised by how your answers change your perspective. At the very least, it will shift you out of survival mode and into solutions mode. At best, it will help you better understand yourself and the limiting patterns of belief and behavior that get in your way – especially when you’re feeling triggered – so you can avoid them in the future.

Figure out what’s important. And then honor it.

Your boss has goals – both overt and covert. You might think she’s driving the team to that ambitious target for her own glorification. But in reality, she needs to hit that target so she can earn her bonus and move her family to a better school district.

Maybe she wants the corner office so she can alter the course of the business in a way current leadership is unable to conceive of.

Maybe she’s pushing the launch date up because she’s anticipating new competitors entering the market sooner than later.

Whatever the reason, if it’s important to your boss, it should be important to you. And when you show her it’s important to you, she’ll begin to trust you. Trust makes all relationships better and easier to navigate.

Be honest and straightforward

You and your boss don’t have to be besties. But you do have to respect each other.

That means presenting your thoughts, opinions and data with honesty, clarity and integrity. Throw a little humor into the mix - you'll be surprised how much easier conversations, even the toughest ones, go when you can share a laugh. Cut him some slack from time to time. Even when you're frustrated, you must make a concerted effort to stop venting to your colleagues. There’s no integrity in talking about people behind their backs.

It also means not fudging the numbers or burying bad news. When we’re feeling triggered, it’s tempting to do these things. But they’re damaging. At best they drive a wedge between you and your boss. At worst, they erode trust and potentially impact your career in very real, irreversible ways.

Accept that you may have to move on

Some bosses are beyond help. That happens. It’s awful.

And as frustrating as that is, it’s important to remember that no one is born a terrible person. Something happens to make them that way. Something bad. And if that’s the case, have compassion for them.

And then, move on. You can’t fix them.

Take whatever learnings and advancements you can, thank your boss for the experience, and be on your way. In your new job you’ll grow and learn and reach new heights. And one day, you might run into that boss on the street and you’ll be surprised by how untriggered you are and how easily you fall into pleasant conversation.

That’s the power of compassion at work.


The Unstuck Leader book is now available.
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