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How to ‘manage up’

By AMY NARISHKIN, Ph.D.
For the Illinois Business Journal

Dr. Amy Narishkin

Do you have a tough boss? One option is to quietly quit. But there’s another option. When you’re feeling down about your boss, you can “manage up.” 

McKinsey estimates 40% of workers in the U.S. are at least somewhat likely to leave their jobs in the next 3-6 months. 

With an increasing number of job opportunities, workers are tolerating poor management less and less. It’s tempting to think your manager has to change before your circumstances get better. We tend to think power is top-down and comes from the outside. 

But cultural intelligence empowers people from the bottom-up and comes from inside each of us. Cultural intelligence enables you to respectfully communicate with a person who has a different perspective. 

With this skill set, you can find words to care for both you and your boss.

That’s the perspective I teach in my executive coaching sessions. Here’s some dialogue from a recent session:

Kayla, the head of operations at a bank, said: “I don’t know what to do about my new boss, Linda. I had a great relationship with my old boss at my previous bank. We had a great connection and I always knew where I stood with her.”

Amy: “Sounds like you had a solid relationship. [She nodded.] What prompted you to leave that bank?” 

Kayla: “There was no room for me to advance – I had to move on.”

Amy: “Must’ve been a tough decision to leave such a great boss.”

Kayla: “It was. Just recently, Linda told me I was being argumentative in a meeting with a vendor, but I was just asking questions to get a better understanding. Later on, she told me it wasn’t my place to

speak, I shouldn’t have even been invited to the meeting. She should have my back, like my old boss did.”

Amy: “How’d that impact you?”

Kayla: “I felt invisible, like I didn’t matter.”

Amy: “Feelings like that are legit. I can see why you want to problem-solve. Question for you: Is there any chance you’re holding up that old relationship as a standard for this new relationship?”

Kayla, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

Amy: “I get that you appreciate your old boss. Just so I know, is there anything you like about Linda? Kayla, “She doesn’t micromanage me.”

Amy: “Because she’s not involved in your day-to-day, that may indicate she doesn’t know you well yet.”

Kayla: “That’s true.”

Amy: “So what do you need?

Kayla: “I need her to have my back.”

Amy: “I get that. I also know you can’t change her, but you can change you. When I’m in a situation like that, I ask myself two questions:

  1. What do I need to care for me during this tender time?’
  2. What is mine to do in this situation?’ 

“First, figure out what you need…

  • Acknowledge your emotion. Feeling invisible hurts a soul. Slow down, feel your feelings and hold them tenderly, perhaps as you would a puppy. Acknowledging allows you to…
  • Accept hurt as part of reality. You can ask, “Is there something I can learn here?” When we accept both the heartbreak and beauty of our lives, we see our own humanity. Our
  • defensiveness eases off. Acceptance allows you to…
  • Appreciate your courage. It takes courage to slow down instead of reacting in anger. Take the time you need to move out of your trash-compactor brain and soften your gaze with genuine appreciation of yourself and your humanity. Appreciation allows you to…
  • Act from compassion. It can take a minute, an hour or a week to feel compassion for yourself and another. It’s helpful to know that love is more of an action than a feeling; you may need to take a step to feel compassion.

“Second, to act from compassion, ask, ‘What is mine to do?’”

Kayla: “That’s helpful. I need to connect with her. When she, another manager and I have gone out for drinks after work, we’ve had good rapport. But there wasn’t a deeper connection.”

Amy: “That’s legitimate. So, what can you do to create deeper connection?”

Kayla: “I can initiate weekly meetings so she knows more about my work. I can share what’s on my mind and learn more about what she needs.”

Amy: “That’s it. By closing the communication gap, you’re creating a win-win scenario. That’s you managing up with cultural intelligence. May I suggest a framework for your meetings?”

Kayla: “Absolutely.”

Amy: “Start each meeting answering these three questions: 

  1. What have you accomplished?
  2. So what are you working on/toward now?
  3. Now what can I do to support you?

“This will help you manage up with your boss. You can also manage down with your direct reports by asking these same questions each week.”

Kayla: “I appreciate this. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

A week later, Kayla emailed saying, “Linda and I had lunch on Tuesday. It was the first time we’ve really connected. It went really well. Thank you!”

With cultural intelligence, you begin to see problems as opportunities. You recognize that, yes, these steps take time, effort and intentionality, but that’s what ultimately gave Kayla the courage and power to create a win-win for herself and her boss.

 

Dr. Amy Narishkin is a Cultural Intelligence trainer, coach and strategist working with financial, healthcare and manufacturing organizations. To read her blog or request executive coaching, visit www.EmpoweringPartners.com.

 

(Editor’s note: This story also appears in the February 2024 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.)

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