Learning how to ‘manage up’ and influence the leaders in your organisation could win you increased trust and credibility.
People don’t leave jobs, they leave bosses, or so the saying goes. But even if you like your boss or executive team, the relationship usually still requires some sort of management – especially if you want to develop influence.
‘Managing up’ asks us to reframe how we think about the dynamic between us and our superiors, moving from a hierarchical top-down approach to a more malleable two-way relationship.
Putting it into practice can involve practical strategies, such as learning at which stage in a process you should loop a leader in, or how to deploy negotiating tactics to get your ideas over the line. When done well, it might help you overcome big hurdles, like getting a risk-averse leader to sign off on a new initiative, or learning how to respond to a challenging leader’s whims without compromising the employee experience.
“The traditional sense of a one-way managerial relationship that’s always just managing down is long gone. I want to be managed.” – Leani Viljoen, HR consultant and executive
Carol Gill FCPHR, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Melbourne Business School, says the concept of seeking influence with superiors has always existed in some capacity.
“You could say it goes all the way back to Machiavelli, or to Shakespeare’s Iago whispering into the ear of the powerful Othello,” she says.
Establishing influence and credibility with your leaders starts with understanding and anticipating their needs, she says.
“In building that relationship, one really needs to understand what the other person’s interests are, what they want and what they need. Then think about how you can help them achieve those outcomes.”
Today, many leaders appreciate managing up, says Leani Viljoen, an experienced HR consultant and executive.
“The traditional sense of a one-way managerial relationship that’s always just managing down is long gone. I want to be managed,” she says. “I often find with CEOs, and as an executive myself, we can be a bit forgetful because we’ve got so many things on our plates.”
Shumaila Ali, People and Culture Lead at NBRS Architecture, says managing up should be embraced as it benefits the organisation.
“For me, managing up starts with understanding the strategic view of the business and where the business is going, and translating that into how you can add value.”
Over the last two years, organisations have increasingly looked to HR to help shape new ways of working and guide their people through the pandemic. But it’s not always smooth sailing – sometimes leaders stand in the way of change. So how can you build the clout needed to get your superiors on side?
Learn how to match leaders’ style
Establishing credibility and a strong footing for the relationship starts with very practical details, such as examining your communication patterns, says Ali.
“You have to have that regular loop of communication to make sure the people above you really know what’s happening.”
Understanding how someone likes to communicate is also critical. Adapting your communication style accordingly can go a long way.
“You might be someone who really likes to send emails, but your manager might be someone who likes to work things out face-to-face,” says Ali.
“For me, managing up starts with understanding the strategic view of the business and where the business is going, and translating that into how you can add value.” – Shumaila Ali, People and Culture Lead at NBRS Architecture
Reiterating information can help to stop important details from slipping through the cracks, says Viljoen.
“Particularly when I’ve got a CEO or a manager who is really busy, I often reframe and revisit a conversation, or summarise it in an email,” she says.
But proceed with caution, because it’s possible to go too far, says Ali.
“Don’t overcommunicate – that shows a lack of critical thinking,” she says. “Especially if you’re working in a small-to-medium-sized business where you might be reporting to the business owner, or if you’re reporting to someone who is really tight for time, understanding how, and how often, they like to communicate is very important.”
Develop influence tactics
When dealing with a change-resistant leader, it may be tricky to get buy-in for your ideas. But Gill says there are certain ‘influence tactics’ you can try.
To do this effectively, it helps to understand your leader’s values and how they tend to make decisions.
For example, if you have a leader who values metrics and data, you might deploy ‘rational persuasion’, a strategy that relies on logical justification. Gill says this could mean foregrounding HR analytics and benchmarking data to measure and demonstrate the impact of your proposal.
“Unless you can draw a clear line of sight, you’re not going to be very successful – it’s going to be perceived as a cost, not an investment,” she says.
You should also explain the risk of not acting. For example, the organisation could lose talent.
Another influence tactic, she says, is ‘inspirational appeals’. This strategy draws on the values of the organisation and leader in a more emotional way. This is used less frequently, but it’s very impactful.
“Influence comes from understanding what they care about,” says Gill. “Ask yourself: ‘What are their values? How are you aligning to that?’”
Make sure you effectively tell the story about how your proposal aligns with the overall vision, says Gill, as this could elicit a more enthusiastic response.
For example, if a leader’s top priority for 2022 is growth – which Gartner shows is the top priority for nearly 60 per cent of CEOs – you might weave in messaging into your pitch about how your proposed new onboarding platform will streamline the company’s ability to get the right talent that’s prepared to add value faster, or that your D&I strategy will bring in more diverse voices that could open the company up to new lucrative markets.
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Present leaders with multiple options
When presenting new ideas or entering uncharted territory for the company, framing ideas through a variety of options can be a handy tactic, says Viljoen.
“I mentored someone who had a pretty [risk-averse] boss. When she wanted to do an initiative around diversity and inclusion, she struggled to figure out a way to suggest it to him, because she’d suggested a particular event the year before and he knocked it down,” she says.
“She was a bit nervous to go back to him and ask the question again, but she wanted to, and employees were pushing her to do something.”
Viljoen’s advice was to reframe the suggestion as a question and present choices.
“She went back to him and said, ‘Look, I know last year we didn’t do anything for, let’s say, Wear it Purple Day. But we’ve had some suggestions from the floor. Here are two or three things we could do. What do you think?
“If you throw something in that’s not too out there, then the person can comfortably make a decision on a spectrum of choices, rather than being forced into a corner.”
In this case, it worked and the leader agreed to one of the options presented.
“She gave him a choice that was on a scale and a spectrum that was safe for him, but it was still a step in the right direction for the company,” says Viljoen.
Learn when to speak up
It’s important to communicate your own needs to a leader, to ensure you have the resources needed to do your job and to establish realistic mutual expectations.
This conversation could be framed as telling a leader how best to utilise your strengths. For example, you might say, “I feel I do my best work when I’m left to ideate alone but can then finesse my ideas with others.”
While some people might fear this could make them look demanding, it could ultimately gain you more respect.
Gill says it’s crucial to remain authentic and push back if something’s not working.
“Authentic HR managers speak their minds when something doesn’t align.”
Ali agrees: “Managing up is not about sucking up. It’s not about saying ‘yes’ to everything or just agreeing to everything. It’s really about putting your professional expertise and experience into a situation and context to find solutions.”
If you have a leader who is tied to the top-down approach, it could take some time to build influence. But not trying to do this could mean your organisation trails behind those who were brave enough to try something new.
If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from the last two years, it’s that, in many respects, the old way of doing things no longer cuts the mustard.
A longer version of this article first appeared in the February 2020 edition of HRM Magazine.