Managing Upward 101

Written by Charles Nelson - December 11, 2019

Managing people is about influencing their behaviour. There are two “managing upward” scenarios: First, the need to influence the behaviour of a person senior to you, and Second, to influence the behaviour of a secondary client, for example where you are employed by another consultant who in turn is employed by the primary (end user) client.

This post is about the first of those scenarios.

Everybody has strengths and weaknesses; skills and incompetencies. In the normal course of professional development, one works under others who have greater strengths and skills, and we learn from them.

Sometimes we are in the situation where these roles seem reversed: where our skills and understanding about a particular situation exceed those of the person we report to, and we see a course of action that is apparently better. Of course, it is possible that we only think that, and if we had more experience, we’d see the flaw in our logic.

Those cases aside, we have to figure out how to “manage up”. If your boss is enlightened, she will listen to your logic, learn from it, and embrace the concepts if that is the right course.

However, all bosses are not so enlightened, and may start from the “my way or the highway” style of management. See a recent post:  “The Seven Cardinal Sins of Managing Project Managers”. If you are struggling with a “managing up” problem, reading this post may help you understand the structure of the problem you are having.

There are some general courses of action that you should take, which – except in the worst cases – should make it easier for you to influence your boss’s behaviour:

  1. Don’t jump to conclusions. Be thorough in your preparation. Check the background – read the client brief, and any subsequent instructions, carefully, Ensure that your arguments are solidly supported.
  2. Prepare alternatives. One of the hallmarks of negotiation skill is to offer more than one option – and let the other person pick between options rather than just saying “no”.
  3. Think about whether or not your suggestions will increase either design time & cost, or project cost. Either of these can trump an otherwise better idea – especially if any rework from other consultants is required.
  4. Consult with your colleagues – is your boss just “having a bad hair day”, or is she generally resistant to suggestions from others?
  5. Pick your time to have the discussion. Avoid times when your boss is preoccupied or under pressure – these will make it harder for him to listen.
  6. Stay cool, don’t get flustered. Remember that you always have an alternative yourself, which is “the highway”.

A story from my own experience as a young architect; My boss, who grew to become my great mentor, was a Boston architect with a very short fuse, who liked to shoot first and ask questions later. A couple of times a day, he would come storming into the drafting studio, head down, eyes blazing, like a small, enraged bull. We knew that whoever’s desk was in his sights was due for a dressing down, often over a trivial matter.

I learned a very simple but wonderfully effective technique for deflecting this sortie, which was to always have 4 or 5 questions I knew he hadn’t figured out yet (by asking them in periods of calm). Then, when I saw him headed for my desk, I’d say, “Hey, Bill, what did you decide about (insert topic of question).” He’d slide to a halt, look puzzled, say “WHAT?” I’d repeat the question, and he would say, “I don’t know yet about that. Now, what was it I came in here for?”.

By then, he’d completely forgotten the source of his rage, the fuse was burnt out, and he’d calmly go back to his office.

That simple method of deflecting his anger by a question he didn’t know the answer to was 100% effective. In terms of influencing my mentor’s behaviour, it was perfect. Do what works! You are a design professional, a problem-solver. Find a solution that works for you, and for your boss. That’s managing upward.

Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA, AECPM

March 5, 2019