Dr Lois Frankel – The Golden Rule of Management: Managing Up


The Golden Rule of Management

Despite the growing informality in the workplace, the Golden Rule of Management still prevails: he or she who has the gold sets the rules. The degree to which you work within the boundaries established by the boss, and adapt to different bosses, largely determines your ultimate success in the organization. Here are three secrets for successfully managing up:

  1. Do your job and find ways to make his or her job easier. Every reasonable request should be met with a can do attitude. If you really can’t do it, however, you need to let the boss know in a way that demonstrates you’re seeking a solution to how it can get done, not presenting an obstacle to doing it.
  2. Never embarrass the boss. If you want to disagree, do so in private. Don’t expect the boss to always take your advice. And, even if it turns out you were right, never say “I told you so”.
  3. Don’t burden the boss with your personal problems no matter how patient, enlightened and understanding the boss appears. The best bosses make allowances now and then, but you shouldn’t dwell on your personal problems at work. It will ultimately undermine the perception that you are fit and ready for duty.
The Chain of Command is Alive and Well

One of the stereotypes of younger workers is that they have no respect for the chain of command. When the boss of a Baby Boomer said “jump” the Boomer replied “how high?” Today, the response is “why?” I don’t think it’s that Gen X and Gen Y don’t respect authority, I think they’re just more comfortable questioning directives and probing to understand the big picture. In any case, there are a number of ways you might unknowingly break the chain of command and find yourself in corporate Siberia:

  • Publicly disagree with the boss’ position on an issue.
  • Attempt to build relationships with your boss’ peers or managers.
  • Take on assignments given by others without letting the boss know.
  • Schedule meetings high profile clients or senior executives and not invite the boss.
  • Go to HR to challenge a decision made by the boss.
Dealing With a Micromanaging Boss

A basic tenet of motivational theory is that you delegate a project, but not the process. Unfortunately, too many managers missed this point in their Management 101 class (if they took it at all) and de-motivate staff members by dictating not only what needs to be done but how it should be done as well. By nature, human beings want to do a good job, want to use their fullest professional capacities, and — believe it or not — want to please their bosses. Although women take this pleasing thing a bit too far if you ask me. So how do you keep up your enthusiasm and stay motivated with a micromanager boss? Try one of these suggestions:

  • Negotiate periodic updates. Bosses often micromanage because they become anxious when they don’t know what’s happening and if a deadline will be met. When you’re given a project, ask the boss how often he or she wants to be updated and in what format (e-mail reports, face-to-face meetings, etc.).
  • Set specific dates and provide those to the boss with the promise you’ll initiate the update without prompting. Then deliver on your promise.
  • Brainstorm strategies before diving into a project. Nothing is more frustrating than eagerly taking off down one road only to have the boss say you’re on the wrong highway entirely. If you know your boss is a micromanager, ask for time to first review the parameters of the projects then meet to discuss how you will go about achieving the deliverables. Ask how he or she would do it and indicate your willingness to try out some of these suggestions.
  • Identify learning opportunities. The good news abot micromanager bosses is that you can actually learn from them. They may do things differently than you would, but that presents the chance to explore facets of a project that you may never have before considered. If you can get yourself into a “learning” place, it will cut down on your frustration.
  • Ask for the opportunity to try out new methodologies. Bosses sometimes cling to old ways of doing things because they know they work and don’t like surprises. Try it first on a project that has a long lead time — you can always say you’d like to try out a new method and, if long before the due date it looks like it’s not working, you’ll revert to the tried and true.
  • Find external outlets for your energy and creativity. The workplace isn’t the only place you can take the ball and run with it. PTA, volunteer efforts, and professional associations are places that value independent efforts.
  • Of course you can always ask for a transfer or quit, but your best best in these situations is to wait out the boss. Sooner or later most move on.
Managing Up With a New Boss

After a keynote I did recently a young woman came up to me and asked how to make a good first impression with a new boss. She’s transferring from a division in Los Angeles to one in San Francisco and wants to make sure she gets off on the right foot. The only thing she knows about the new boss is that others say she’s somewhat of a micromanager. Here’s what I told her:

Even though it’s the same company, there will be new rules, boundaries and strategies at the new locale. There are three things to do soon after arrival:

  1. Learn the boss’ priorities and make them your own. Tell the boss you’re excited about this new opportunity and want to do everything possible to add value as soon as possible. Then ask the question, “What are the three most important things I can do to help you achieve your goals?” This isn’t about “kissing up” it’s about “managing up.”
  2. Ask your new colleagues about the boss’ hot buttons. Identify the person who has been in the department the longest and who is most successful. In a casual setting, such as over lunch or coffee, ask for tips on how to best meet the boss’ expectations. You can say something like, “You’ve been here a lot longer than me and I’m wondering if you would give me some tips on what to do — and not do — to provide our boss with the kinds of deliverables she expects.” Then just listen. Regardless of the answer, you’ll learn something valuable. Also ask the person if there’s anyone else you should talk to in order to gain more insight into success factors in your department.
  3. Be a good observer and extraordinary listener. You’re looking for clues as to what’s expected on your new playing field. Does the boss like frequent updates? How does she like them delivered – in person or through e-mail? Is she someone who focuses more on concepts or details? In meetings does she invite discussion or only want to give direction? If she is indeed a micromanager, you know what to expect so go with the flow.

In short, don’t expect that what worked for you at your last job or with your former boss will work with the new one. Too many people view bosses as one dimensional and lump them into one category: management. In fact, there are as many boss styles as there are bosses. Don’t be afraid to ask your boss how you can add value.

It May Not Be the Boss You Want, But It May Be the Boss You Need

Not long ago I went to a funeral for the father of a colleague. When my colleague stood up to eulogize his Dad he said, “He may not have been the Dad I wanted but he was the Dad I needed.” Those in attendance gasped, but I thought it was a great line. I understood perfectly what he was saying. Their personalities were not the best suited to one another but he learned many important lessons from the Dad who loved him as best he could. The same holds true in the workplace. Our bosses are not always best suited to our personalities or our developmental needs. Not every boss — not even most bosses — are proficient at giving us the coaching and mentoring we need. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be invaluable contributors to our careers. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of your boss/direct report relationship:

  • Look for complementarity. We sometimes don’t appreciate the boss who has a different skill set than our own. Are you a big picture thinker with a boss who focuses on details? If so, much to your dismay, the boss may be constantly reminding you to fill in the gaps. But in the long-run you will learn more valuable behaviors and skills than you will from a boss who is just like you.
  • Capitalize on the bad. So many people have told me that they learned a lot from bad bosses. They learned what they did not want to do, things they would not emulate, and behaviors they would prefer to focus on. If you’ve got a bad boss analyze is or her behaviors and identify those that you will not include in your repertoire.
  • Cut the boss some slack. If you can see your boss as a human being first and a boss second you just might be able to forgive some of his or her transgressions. Maybe she’s intimidated by senior management and too quick to agree to unreasonable requests — that later fall on your shoulders. Or perhaps he’s conflict averse and won’t step in when mediation is needed. Understanding the boss’ limitations enables you to develop an alternative game plan.
  • Ask for what you need. We’ve talked about this before. Don’t just ask for feedback. Ask what you can do more or less of to be even more effective in your role. This gives the boss a broader array of behaviors to describe than just, “You’re doing fine” in response to the question, “How am I doing?”
  • Seek alternative mentoring and coaching. So the boss isn’t such a great coach or mentor. Stop lamenting the fact and look for others who can teach you what you need to learn to round out your resume or skill set. Whether it’s a formal or informal relationship, whether it’s direct or observational, you can get what you need from someone other than your boss.



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