Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Apr 11, 2010

Ask a Manager: Managing Up

Dick Whitman, Manager in Residence

Dear Manager, 

"Do you have any tips on how an underling should initiate a conversation with her boss about concerns she has regarding their working relationship? For example, my boss shows up late for meetings I am facilitating, gives me assignments that lead me to believe she thinks I'm her assistant, and she doesn't provide feedback in a timely manner, which slows my progress on projects. I'd like the conversation to be mature and productive, not a laundry list of things that are annoying me. Thanks for your input."

There are a few questions I’d love to ask you before sending you in for that tough conversation. If I had a little more detail, my guidance might be more direct, but ultimately what I’m going to tell you should lead to the same end result. So in preparing to address this situation, I’d suggest you analyze it from two additional points of view.

First, I’d like you to consider your boss’ behavior with others to determine if this is truly an issue with how she sees you or if these problems might be areas in which your boss needs to improve in general. For example, does your boss show up late for everyone’s meetings? This might not be an issue of your boss not respecting you. Maybe your boss has time management challenges, or better yet maybe your boss has had too damn much work piled on her plate and how can they expect her to find enough hours in the day to get through all of these endless back to back meetings!

Sigh. OK better now. Where were we?

I kid. But seriously, I would like you to try to truly understand whether you are being singled out with this behavior because, while it won’t necessarily change the words you use in raising the issue, it will give you some additional perspective as to how much of this issue is within your control.

In thinking this through, it’s ok to ask a few trusted peers for their input, but I would recommend you use your own powers of (objective) observation as much as possible. Going around asking everyone in the group if the boss treats them like an assistant would be  “stirring the pot”, and I’ve never been convinced that the input you get from this kind of thing is all that valid. I’ve had people come to me with complaints at times that end with “and everyone else feels that way too” and this always makes me picture the scene by the water cooler where heads are all nodding as the villagers are getting ready to storm the castle.

We managers have enough trouble trying to keep morale up in this economy. I would get kicked out of the managers’ union if this response were viewed as a recommendation to go pot-stirring. You can get more trustworthy results by observing the other meetings you are in with your boss where you are not in the lead, nd her interactions with those who are.

 The second bit of perspective to think about is your own interaction with others. Think about past bosses you have had as well as peers and others senior to you in the organization. Is this situation with your boss a new dynamic, or are you having a “here we go again” feeling?  This kind of exploration is important before having the conversation with your boss so you can truly understand if this is a pervasive problem that you want to break out of for the good of your long-term career or if this is truly an issue of your boss needing to change her behavior to better support you.

 Now if you take all of this above reflection and organize it in your head, you will hopefully have a pretty well-rounded view of the situation and the potential drivers. You won’t necessarily talk about your findings with your boss. They are meant to provide you with perspective to ground you and help you to steer the conversation.

I highly recommend that you stay away from anything that sounds like “we have problems with our relationship”. That risks putting your boss immediately on the defensive, which will cause you to exert a lot of time and emotion in the world of denial. Depending upon your boss’ personality, this can lead to all sorts of reactions ranging from hostility at the notion of her being challenged to a hypersensitive effort to do everything in the opposite way….and probably with that sugary-sweet fakeness that people try when they are called out on bad behavior. You know the one.

Think about the goals that each of you (should) have within the workplace. A boss wants her team to be effective so she will be successful as the leader of that team. A team is made up of individual employees. An employee wants to be effective, treated with respect, and see growth in her career.

I think the best way to lead into the discussion is to talk about where you fit within the group. The issue you are raising should be about your role, your impact, and your ability to be effective. It should be about how you think you are perceived based upon concrete things you have observed, and how you would like your boss to help you to change this perception so you can be more effective within her group for the benefit of both of you.

For example, “I would like to understand how you perceive me in terms of my ability and effectiveness….it is my perception that you might not see me at the same level I see myself and I would like to understand what I need to do to change your perception of me…I would like to contribute at a higher level, as I have expected my job to involve x, but I’m finding myself spending a lot of time doing y…”

You will notice that I putting a heavy burden on you to take the hit for “what you can do” to change the situation. While I do think that you need to be prepared to share in the solution, this is not to suggest that it is all on you. I have just found this approach to be disarming and to help to mitigate some of the natural defensiveness that your boss might feel if coming under what feels like criticism.

Now get ready. Your boss might tell you that your perception of how she views you is actually not correct from her perspective.
 work and you don’t need it.
  • She might tell you that she gives you the tasks that make you feel like her assistant because she trusts you more than others to help her more directly.
  • She might say that she shows up late for your meeting because she trusts you to run the show (or she might throw out some whiny excuses about her workload being too high).
  • She might tell you that she doesn’t give you a lot of feedback because she’s just happy with your work and you don't need it.
If the conversation goes in this direction, it is important to emphasize what you need from your boss to be effective. You can accept and appreciate this new perspective from her, but stick to your guns with regard to your needs. Tell her that you would like to have her support in your meetings and that you want to get feedback so you can continue to improve.

Tell her that you want to have challenging assignments and you would like to have the opportunity to contribute at a higher level than you do now. From there, you will probably need to let that percolate a bit, but I am hopeful that over time you will see some changes stemming from the fact that you raised her awareness.

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