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Managing Up is About Expectation Management

Eye Looking UpManaging up can be challenging. Failure to meet your boss’s informational needs can lead to bad decisions and frustrating interactions. Learn how to manage up more effectively.

Sometimes it’s harder to manage your boss than it is to manage your team. All senior stakeholders can prove challenging to keep control of. Fail to do so and they run off with harebrained ideas or half-baked truths that take you days to fix.

But if you invest the time and thought in managing up, you can turn your senior stakeholders into your greatest allies and one of the best assets on your team. It all boils down to expectations and managing them appropriately.

Your boss or senior stakeholder has a lot on their plate. They’re managing you and all your colleagues not to mention managing the stakeholders above them. When they’re pulled in a million different directions, they get precious little time to engage with the work you’re doing. When they do engage, they have limited opportunity to dig into the situation before offering their assistance. In their efforts to assist you, when they make decisions based on a cursory understanding of the situation, things are bound to go awry.

In the worst cases, they make decisions that run directly counter to what you want them to do. They send your team East when you should be heading West. Now your task is double – you have to convince them that going East is a bad idea – which is hard to do because they think it’s the right decision – and convince them you should be taking your team West. But before you go cursing them for wreaking such havoc, you must realize you’re to blame.

Managing up is all about expectation management.

Tell them how to help

If you go to your boss/stakeholder and tell them you want assistance but you don’t specify how they can be helpful, you’re leaving them to their own devices to figure out how to weigh in. While many times this is fine, there will be times they come up with their own “original” idea that blows up your plans.

Instead of making the nonspecific “please help” request, tell them how they can be helpful. Try something like “Gee boss, this project has gotten challenging and I could really use your help. If you could spend some time with Frank and explain to him why he should support our project launch, it would go a long way toward speeding things up. Frank keeps stonewalling me and I can’t get him to budge.” You’ve given your boss clear direction on how to assist by setting an expectation for how you want them to help. There’s a high likelihood they’ll now go speak with Frank and try to get him to support your work.

Tell them what to expect

Unless it’s a birthday or a marriage proposal, people generally don’t like surprises. Bosses certainly don’t like being surprised. Usually those surprises are of the bad flavor. When your boss learns about something you’re working on or a problem on your team and the source of their information is anyone other than you, they’ll be frustrated with your lack of communication.

Set their expectations when you know there’s something they need to know about. “Hey boss, just a heads up that the project is going to be delayed a week. Don’t worry – I’ve already retained a contractor to get us back on schedule. I just didn’t want you hearing about this from somewhere else and worrying about the overall project timeline.” Now the boss is informed. When they walk down the hall and their boss asks them “Hey, what’s this I hear about the project being delayed?” they can now answer “Don’t worry – we already have a recovery plan in place” instead of having to say “What delay?”

Learn what they want to hear and how frequently

I have an expectation of what I call “update frequency” with my team. It’s the period of time between me receiving an update on a project and getting another update. I always tell my team members “I should never have to ask you for a status update. You need to learn my update frequency and communicate accordingly.” And by the way – as the boss I also need to know my boss’s update frequency so they don’t pester my team in the absence of information from me.

My expectation is my team knows which work requires an update once a month, once a week, once a day, or once an hour. They need to reach out and update me on that schedule. For routine projects, once a month is fine. For a crisis, once a day or once every few hours is more appropriate. If your boss is routinely coming to you asking for updates, you need to increase your update frequency.

At the beginning of a project or event, ask your boss “how frequently would you like me to update you?” They’ll tell you pretty clearly what their communication expectations are.

Managing up is all about communications and expectations. The more time you put into these activities, the fewer bad decisions you’ll have to clean up and the less time you’ll spend doing damage control or answering ad hoc requests.

The Elegant PitchIf you’d like to learn more about the method for communicating clearly with senior stakeholders, grab a copy of my book The Elegant Pitch: Create a Compelling Recommendation, Build Broad Support, and Get it Approved. It’s on presale now on Amazon. CLICK HERE to get your copy. The book will walk you through a process for communicating clearly, simply, and at an “executive” level.

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

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One Response to “Managing Up is About Expectation Management”

  1. Leszek says:

    Hey Mike, helpful post! Two cents from my side regarding the update frequency. From my experience, asking boss how often he would like to get the updates results in something like “Well, just tell me when there’s something important I need to know”. So I’d suggest explicitly proposing certain update frequency (e.g. once a week) and then adjust it later if needed. Or even increasing the frequency in first weeks beyond what’s really needed and asking whether such a frequency is OK. Often real experience can give bosses better idea of what they need than a theoretic plan.

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