First class coach

I'm making a pretty good job of managing my direct reports but don't have much contact with my boss and her boss.

by Miranda Kennet
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Despite the fact that I'm performing well, recently I've been criticised for failing to manage upwards. Does this matter and, if so, what should I do about it?

Sorry to be critical, but if you haven't already developed an effective working relationship with those further up the hierarchy, you are only doing half the job of managing.

Not managing upwards has all sorts of consequences for you, for those you manage and the tasks for which you are responsible. For a start, you are in competition with other parts of the organisation for resources - financial and human - and for attention. Although logic should dictate that these essentials are distributed according to merit, in practice logic is rarely the final arbiter for how allocation decisions are made.

If you haven't established positive expectations with your bosses, what will happen when you want extra budget for some new initiative? If the organisation is downsizing, how will you ensure that it is not your department that feels the knife most keenly? For, be under no illusion, there will be others at your level (or even downstream of you) who will have taken the time and trouble to ensure that they have a disproportionately large share of the good things and fewer of the bad things that are up for grabs.

You say you are performing well. But if you don't have close contact with your boss, to allow you insight into what's going on at the top of the organisation, it will be difficult for you to know if the goalposts have suddenly shifted and that, despite your hard work, your efforts are suddenly being misdirected.

How would I describe successful upwards management? You know you've got it when you have established a match between your expectations and those of your line manager; when you have established mutual trust and support, a symbiosis through which you further each other's professional and personal ambitions.

Before tackling the subject of how to establish or improve relationships, consider why you haven't already successfully engaged in managing upwards.

Are you unduly conscious of the pecking order and feeling that you don't have the right to an adult, equal relationship with those who are your seniors (in age and/or position)? If this is the case, your deference may be interpreted as indicating you are not worthy of this equality.

On the other hand, you may treasure your autonomy and deliberately avoid contact with authority figures who might threaten it. If so, it is possible that your senior management's laissez-faire attitude will evaporate if something goes wrong and they are suddenly called to account for something happening in your area. You might find that you are then subject to a much greater degree of micro-management.

The secret of good relationships, at home or at work, is clear mutual communication. This requires the right words, music and dance - in other words, the right content, the right tone and the right body language.

What constitutes 'right' is your task to find out. Understanding what makes your bosses tick is a key ingredient of enhanced communication, so do some detective work.

The first step is to observe closely how your boss relates to others at your level and below. Are there some people with whom she seems to have the sort of effective working relationship you need to establish?

If so, what are the characteristics of the relationship? How often do they meet? Do they have one-to-one time, not just contact at management meetings? Are there things that your peers do that seem to be particularly valued by senior management? Even if these things don't seem to be important to you, you would do well to copy the successful strategies of others if you want to increase appreciation of you and your section.

What might your line manager's personal ambitions be? Is she new to her job and finding it hard to settle down? If so, you might find ways to help her establish herself. Is she angling for a promotion and in need of impressing her boss? There are ways you could help here, too. A boss of mine explained to me early in my career and our working relationship: 'If you look good, as your manager, so do I.' He showed me how I could present my work in a good light, which by extension reflected well on him too.

Of course, it may be that your boss doesn't choose to engage with you, or that you eschew her company because you don't respect her. In either case, getting to know her as a person will help, either in increasing her trust in you or, at the very least, in helping you understand how to work with her successfully, so that she is not a block to your progress.

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