Managing Upwards: First you need to clearly understand your Manager

understanding your manager two colleagues at work looking at a mobile phone smiling

In my last blog post, Managing Upwards: How to make progress through influencing your supervisor, I introduced the subject of managing upwards. And I emphasised the importance of ‘Seek first to understand; then to be understood.’ In this blog post, I thought I’d share some ideas seeking first to understand.

Two important traits and attitudes

The first thing to recognise is that you need two important traits and attitudes when trying to develop an understanding of your manager.  They are:

1 – Be caring

To manage upwards effectively take the time to get to know your boss. Then show genuine interest in your supervisor’s wellbeing and celebrate their successes. 

It’s important to remember your boss is a person too, with a life outside of work. Even before the pandemic, the lines between the personal and the professional were blurring. Now that we have all entered each other’s homes over Zoom and Teams, professional relationships are no longer cold and distant. To genuinely connect to your supervisor, develop empathy for your manager.

Empathy is typically defined as, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This means seeing the world through their eyes and understanding how they may be feeling.

2 – Be Curious

When making that connection, take care to come across as curious and respectful, not gossipy or prying. Take the opportunity of your one-to-one discussions to learn about them as a person. Ask yourself:

  • What is their workday like? 
  • What are they worried about? 
  • What is overwhelming them right now? 
  • What could they use help with?

What do you need to learn about?

When seeking first to understand your manager, there are three specific areas you need to learn about:

1: Understanding your manager’s goals and priorities

Aim to understand your manager’s role and how your role contributes to the achievement of their objectives. 

  • What are your manager’s core responsibilities? 
  • Are you clear about what they are held accountable for? 
  • How do your responsibilities and areas of accountability relate to theirs? 
  • What are their priorities? 
  • And are your priorities aligned? 

Make the effort to understand what is expected of your manager and how their performance is measured. That will put you in a much stronger position to have conversations which relate to what is important to your manager. Once you understand their priorities, you can tailor the information you share. When you help your manager achieve their goals, you show you are dependable and take initiative. Those are two highly coveted traits managers look for in their employees.

When you need your manager’s support, an understanding of their role helps you ensure the conversation is also about their needs. Without an understanding of your manager’s role, you risk raising topics which are of far less significance to your manager.

2: Understand your manager’s development goals and ambitions

It can be helpful to understand your manager’s ambitions in their current role. It can also be helpful to understand their plans for their longer-term career development. For example, if your manager has a goal to become the next VP in your department, how can you support them to that goal? While your manager looks out for your career development, find ways to support and acknowledge theirs as well. Take the time to understand your manager’s vision for their team, function or organisation. What is she ultimately trying to do at this organization? What does she value most (personally and professionally)? How have past career experiences influenced what she does today?

3: Understand your manager’s working style

You need to understand your manager’s working style. And you don’t need to be a psychotherapist to do this – there is lots you can learn from keen observation and active listening.

Try to observe what your manager says and does. That can be in formal settings such as presentations and meetings. It can also be in informal interactions with individuals and groups. Take note of how they communicate with different types of people and with individuals in a range of organizational roles. Once you get to know your boss, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively with them. If, for example, your boss hates communicating via email and loves to talk in person, you know to pick up the phone or plan a meeting.

Pay attention to how they interact with peers, with others who report to them, with clients and other key people. Your active listening skills will come in handy for deepening your understanding of their working style. Aim not to judge their approach but to learn about and thereby better understand the person and their preferences.

When you understand your manager’s communication style and preferences you will be in a stronger position. It might be that your natural style is complementary to what you have observed. Or you might need to adapt your style to accommodate theirs. For example, if one of his pet peeves is being interrupted mid-sentence, and you tend to do that when you are excited, it can put a strain on the relationship. Being mindful of that and consciously making the effort not to interrupt will go a long way.

Develop Your Self-Awareness

The final aspect of ‘seek first to understand’ is to understand yourself. It’s important to understand who you are at work, understand what is important to you, understand your strengths and areas in which you need support.  This gives you a great start in building the interdependence which is the foundation of a good working relationship. Interdependence is, of course, two-way. It is about you depending on your manager for feedback, support and adequate direction. It is also about your manager depending on you for ideas, for hard work and for effort towards the organization goals. 

By getting to know yourself well, you gain a head start on working effectively with your manager. For example, let’s suppose you are an extrovert who finds talking helps you think a problem through, and you report to an introverted manager. They are unlikely to respond well to your talkative approach to problem solving. But as a deep thinker they may be able to provide you with valuable insights if you adopt a different approach. You could explain your problem and the ideas you’ve tried and leave them to think about what you have said and get back to you later. Knowing yourself well allows you to guide your boss in providing the best possible support to you.

So, those are my thoughts on ‘Seek first to understand.’ In my next blog post, I’ll share my thoughts on what is needed ‘then to be understood.’

Find out more about our Career Development Coaching Programme or join us for our Futureproofing Employees Career webinar.

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