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  • Lidiya Becker

Managing up and across

Updated: May 28, 2021

People are the core strength of a business. Yet, people are also the least predictable element of a business. It’s not surprising that conflict often ensues - work-styles clash, incentives are misaligned, power struggles occur, or you may just hire a jerk or two...

There exists substantial literature that addresses both how to get the right kind of people on the team (“First who, then what”), and how to build a culture that incentivizes and rewards those attributes that are important to your business. But building culture and hiring well take time; and, the reality is, most of us are not starting from scratch.

In the short term, we often don’t have the luxury to re-hire the ‘right’ kind of people and to change our culture. Perhaps, we are not even in the position to do this. Many of us are working within a gray area - an existing culture that has some strengths and some weaknesses. Within that context, we aim to do a good job, make progress on our projects and initiatives, and maybe even get that promotion.

So, how do we navigate challenging relationships with stakeholders above us and co-workers alongside us? How do we manage up?

Below, I share 3 approaches that you can try out immediately.

Anticipate and get curious!

Anticipating the needs and desires of others (bosses included) is a key to success when managing up. Get curious about each person individually. Consider the following:

  • Do I fully understand their role and responsibilities in the company?

  • What does success look like to them?

  • What motivates them?

  • What is the best way to communicate with them?

  • How might I help them achieve success?

If you can find a way to align your own goals with the desires/needs of a particular individual, you can build strong momentum for a win-win relationship.

For example, imagine you are struggling to gain momentum on an initiative you care about. Your manager’s response is lukewarm - they don’t seem particularly enthusiastic in their responses or their participation in meetings is lacking. Get curious about why this might be the case. In the current context, what does success look like for your manager? What are their priorities? What gets them excited? Now, how does your initiative address the aforementioned questions? Does your initiative help your manager in any way? Does it align with his or her priorities? Perhaps, the idea is a fine one, but the timing of the project is not. Alternatively, if you see great alignment - perhaps there’s an educational opportunity to expose your manager to how your project fits with their priorities for the business and vision of success.

Be proactive!

Now that you’ve gotten curious about an issue and tried to understand the other individual's perspective, be proactive! Don’t assume that you know anything for sure until you’ve explicitly asked. An authentic and honest conversation goes a long way in clearing up misunderstandings and improving relationships.

Imagine the following:

  • You are a member of the inventory planning team. You require sales forecasts from the marketing team in order to plan for inventory needs.

  • You are frustrated because even after a few requests, the marketing department does not produce a reliable and timely sales forecast.

  • After asking a series of direct questions, you find that forecasting is a low priority for marketing. This is because the activity is heavily administrative and not revenue generating.

A few proactive approaches you may try:

  • Suggesting ideas to make forecasting less administrative and time-intensive for marketing. How can you set marketing up for success?

  • Communicating the benefits of completing this work to marketing - how does this planning work serve the organization?

By making it easier for marketing to do their job, you are creating a net positive for both your needs and theirs.

Share your thought process via second-order thinking.

When making decisions, articulate both the immediate consequences and subsequent consequences of the issue at hand. This principle is called second-order thinking. While a strong approach for all decision-making, in this context, it provides an excellent template for building confidence with a boss or executive stakeholder. Second order thinking provides glimpses into your thought process - which you can demonstrate to be deliberate and disciplined. Since it's clear we can’t read each other's minds (yet, anyway), this approach goes a long way in building confidence and acquiring buy-in from those above you.

Take the following example:

Boss/stakeholder: How’s account A going – did they sign the contract?

Employee: Not yet. We’re having a final conversation with them tomorrow.

This answer provides the least amount of detail possible, and does not expose any higher-level thinking. It might leave the boss/stakeholder concerned, wondering whether an issue is not being articulated and whether a plan is in place.

Consider an alternative response:

Boss/stakeholder: How’s account A going – did they sign the contract?

Employee: Not yet. We’re having a final conversation with them tomorrow. I anticipate for them to push back on X, which I think we can compromise on and get all paperwork done by early next week. I expect to have a kick-off meeting by XX/YY or so.

This is better. The employee exposes some immediate next steps, providing evidence to the boss/stakeholder that he or she is thinking around the corner, next steps are accounted for and a plan is in place.

First order thinking is simple and straightforward. But second order thinking is deliberate and requires one to ask the question “and then what…?”

To sum up, effective managing up requires a genuine curiosity about your colleagues, a willingness to be proactive, direct, and to share your thought process publicly. While these actions may leave you feeling vulnerable, they are the makings of a strong and confident leader and go the extra mile in aligning your needs with those of your organizations.



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