First-class coach

I'm a middle manager in a firm that's going through a rough patch.

by Miranda Kennett
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As well as managing my own staff of four, I have to handle my highly critical boss and his unrealistic expectations. The energy and time I should spend on my own team is being wasted trying to manage upwards. How can I rectify this?

A: Your manager is being criticised by his manager and he's relieving his stress by passing on the criticism to you. I'm very familiar with this syndrome, which I call referred pain: pressure at the top gets passed down the line, so the pain is felt far from the site of the original problem.

If there is a rationale for this behaviour, presumably it is that the result will be action to solve the problem. In practice, what happens is that stress is spread through the organisation, so at every level people are demotivated, and little in the way of positive results is produced.

What makes the situation worse is that the real problems for the organisation are often at a macro level - the competition, the economy, legislation, the environment - issues that it is difficult (or impossible) for anyone within the organisation to influence.

Nevertheless, the tendency is to look for someone internally to blame, particularly those at lower levels. It's happening in the media industry as I write: the current downturn is being blamed on ineffective salespeople, yet in reality many factors have contributed to this situation. Poorly managed companies pass down blame and continue to slide; the more enlightened ones devise ways of selling their space and airtime that are better suited to the changed situation.

A primary role of managers is to create the context where their staff are as effective as possible, so you need to reduce the negative impact of your boss' interference. You can do this most easily by reducing the pressure on him.

Newer managers often express surprise at how much of their time is taken up by addressing the needs of their boss. Used to getting on with their own tasks, they often resent what they see as dead time spent reporting back, especially when the session descends into unfair criticism. And yet being an effective manager involves managing up, just as much as down.

A theory from Wharton Business School is that few people are good at managing both upwards and downwards and that leaders are those people who have this bifocal skill. To develop this ability yourself, put yourself in your boss' position. What are the stresses for someone in that role in general, and for this individual? What sort of results would make his senior management satisfied that a good job is being done? How specifically could you and your team help?

If his expectations are unrealistic, what targets do you feel confident can be delivered? If the volume goals are unachievable, is there a quality or profit benchmark you could achieve? And what support would you need from your manager to achieve these deliverables?

Once you have worked these things out, you'll be able to negotiate with your boss a reporting relationship that works for all parties: you have things you can deliver, and your manager can achieve things for you and your team that in your position you cannot. So apply some of the energy that's making you irritated to sorting out what those helpful activities by your boss would look like. Then in conversation with him you can identify what he can do that will help you and your team achieve the results he needs.

If your boss is clear about how he can be helpful yet still demands too much of your time, you must be direct. Tell him you are doing everything you can to help the situation, but that you find it hard to get enough time with your staff.

Suggest that you have a regular update meeting in which you can pass on three types of information: what's going well, what's not going so well and why; and what you need your manager to do. This will help both you and your boss. He'll be able to pass your successes and opportunities up the line and also understand the real dynamics of your marketplace - important data when he is quizzed by senior management. And he'll be under no illusion as to what behaviour helps you achieve and what hinders progress.

The important thing is not to pass on the referred pain but to do the opposite: manage your team so that they feel energised to achieve their targets and rewarded for their contribution.

- Miranda Kennett is an independent coach. If you have an issue you'd like her to cover, e-mail:

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