WHEN YOUR BOSS DOESN’T MANAGE WELL, MANAGE UP!
I recall having a client, let’s call him Tom, who came to me soon after he had been promoted to a manager from an individual contributor role. Tom complained about communication with his boss, let’s call him Dan. Even though Tom had always admired Dan before becoming his direct report, now he felt Dan was a real pain.
What led Tom to contact me was Dan initiating several meetings to tell Tom he was not happy with the way Tom was managing the team. Dan complained that Tom had not informed him about what was going on with team members or about the details of their current projects. Tom felt Dan was micromanaging as if he did not believe Tom was competent enough to handle things on his own. But as our coaching progressed, Tom came to a different interpretation of Dan’s attitude.
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At the time Tom was promoted, he asked himself a very good question: Why was I promoted? He was undeniably good in what he had been doing, and his boss had seen a potential in him to grow further to the role of people manager. Nevertheless, Tom was sure Dan had also promoted him to help himself. He knew Dan had been overloaded and needed to free himself of direct management of the team Tom had started to supervise. Thus, trying to help Dan, Tom did his best to be as independent as possible. Every time there was an issue, Tom handled it on his own, and in most cases he actually solved the problem successfully without “bothering” his boss. Then Tom was in shock when the behavior for which he had hoped to be rewarded was the one that brought criticism. Like many problems in both personal and professional relationships, this issue continued for some time because these two men were not properly communicating. Dan had never explained to Tom why he asked for the details Tom considered unnecessary to report. Tom had never told Dan about his reasons for not reporting them. Finally, during one of their one-on-ones, Tom told Dan that he was sorry for not giving him the details he asked for. He also explained why he was not reporting them routinely and asked questions to clarify what information Dan wanted him to report. Dan explained to Tom that he was frequently asked about project or team issues by other stakeholders across the company, and it was very unpleasant to hear about these for the first time from somebody other than Tom. After this conversation with Dan, Tom started to understand what level of detail he should report, and his cooperation with Dan started to improve. Seeing Dan’s perspective helped Tom make his boss happy again.
Yes, when Tom felt communication between him and his boss was dysfunctional, he “managed up.” Of course, it would have been nice if, initially, Dan had told Tom all these things without him having to ask. People who are promoted have already spent some time in a company. Thus, it happens quite often that they are not given the information and guidelines people from the outside get. They are expected to understand the company culture and “order and rules” already. They’re given the trust people from the outside never get, but this trust may become a burden and, ironically, can break down quickly. As with any other relationship, every now and then people have expectations that they do not voice and expect others to behave according to them. My advice to all first-time managers, especially to those who are promoted from within the company, is to manage up.
Ask for as much information as you need to understand
the processes and primarily the expectations laid upon you.
Don’t be afraid of asking too many questions. Asking is not a sign that you are not able to handle things on your own. It’s the sign of your effort to understand all you need to be able to manage independently and to satisfaction. If you are not being onboarded well, manage up and make your superior give you all the data you need to succeed. And try to understand what is behind any request that does not make sense to you.