Have you ever felt the need to give guidance to your boss but didn’t know how to?
Maybe you felt awkward if you’re in a team with a hierarchical structure. Maybe you didn’t want to get ‘out of your lane’.
But what if you started thinking of managing up as support rather than control?
The team can be a great source of support and knowledge for leadership. They can provide the all-important context and direction that the manager can then bring to the rest of the team and project. We call this managing up, and it’s an effective way to boost your team, as long as you’re acting with transparency, empathy, and respect.
But it’s not always easy to know how to manage up in your team. That’s why I’m sharing my six steps for getting started.
1. Reflect on your place within the team
Start with knowing what is and isn’t in your control. To do that, reflect on what you’re bringing to the team; you need to be insightful about yourself before you can provide insight to anyone else.
Think about the work you’re doing and how that regularly influences your team. Everyone manages something in their scope that requires support from the team and those above them. What kind of support and decisions do people in your team and organization rely on you for?
You can usually determine where you have influence by thinking about discussing constraints. Consider how often you describe constraints and limitations of a scope of work. That’s usually a good sign you have influence on the decision-making process because people rely on you for information and guidance.
These are your broad areas of control and influence that are conduits to working with your team. These are the places that require your feedback and where you can provide direction for the rest of the group.
2. Understand what's important to your manager and the team goals
What is relevant to your manager and team and how can you support that? By understanding the team priorities, you’ll know where to place your effort and focus. These can be things outside of your normal sphere of influence but you can provide guidance nonetheless.
You intuitively know a lot of things that are within your scope and influence but it doesn’t hurt to do some research and analysis so you have a clearer picture of your wider relationship to the team. One way to do this is to map out the projects your team is actively working on. You can simply sketch out the big team efforts over a course of time in weeks and months and quarters like a Gantt chart. Then create separate sections for your scope, the manager’s scope, and other contributing scopes.
What you have is a roadmap of all the efforts of the team and team members. It doesn’t have to be highly crafted or with specialized knowledge, just good enough to create a general sense of project priorities.
With this roadmap, you can then make points of reference between what you’re doing and how your decisions are affecting the rest of the team. It can be as simple as needing to finish a deadline for someone else to get started. Or information that needs to be exchanged between the team but currently isn't doing so effectively.
3. Narrow down the activities where you have the greatest influence
After mapping out the relationships between the team, identify where you have the greatest crossover with other folks. This should be aligned with the areas you identified in step one. This is your ‘path of travel’ for managing up.It is where you have the most cross-over with people, scope, management, and the deliverables.
As you review your scope of influence, be mindful of stakeholders, motivations, fears, goals, and interests of the people in your team so you can account for intangible factors that influence decision-making.
Next, translate the diagrammatic scope into a simple list of activities with priorities assigned to them. Now you have a basis to discuss with your manager where you think things should be heading.
4. Go over cause and effect with your manager
Talk with your manager and explain what you see coming up as critical areas to address and how that will affect the team. Together, review the priorities on your list. These might include:
- Unresolved issues that need to be sorted out
- Areas of mixed responsibilities that need a dedicated lead
- Critical paths that have not been addressed
- Backlogs holding back further progress
Highlight the pitfalls and opportunities for coordination and how you can get ahead of critical issues on the project. Suggest where you can course-correct and where you can be of assistance. Point to areas of easy wins and identify what it would take to get there.
Be careful not to imply that you’re adding anything to the workload. Instead, you’re reviewing with a critical eye where you think more attention ought to be placed on ongoing efforts. You’re leading the conversation and eliciting feedback from your manager about what can be done. You want to keep your manager in the driver’s seat while co-piloting the way forward.
5. Get feedback on what matters and plan the next steps
Pay attention to the feedback including terminology and keywords. Figure out what the key metrics are. What are your manager’s points of concern? Usually, these are things they will repeat and refer to frequently. That’s a clue that you should pay more attention to what they have to say.
This is a great place to have a discussion. What are your priorities and what are the manager’s priorities? What are the pivot points in the project plan? Don’t forget to also ask clarifying questions where needed.
You need to sniff this content out and figure out an approach to work together. Agree with your manager on the key metrics and events that need to be addressed. If you go into a tangent or niche problem, it’s easy to miss their concerns.
At this point, you can determine what the next action is. Do you need to do more research on the project or team? Do you need to write a brief on how to handle a critical area of concern? Should there be a working session to delve into details of what to do next? The point of these talks is to move forward with another step to address an issue so make sure there is an actionable, scheduled step to follow up on.
6. Encourage your team to bring their own point of view
Don’t forget to talk to your teammates about how to support management. Two heads are better than one and a team is better than an individual when it comes to working with management.
Encourage the practice of managing up with your team. Get everyone to lead with their own initiatives for the greater good of the project outcomes. Try to work down and up, laterally, and across the organization.
Encourage people that work with you and report to you to follow your lead and create a culture of everyone consulting with each other for better communication and rapport. Try the roadmap exercise, get on 1:1 calls, and go out to lunch. There are lots of ways to talk with each other, establish a shared outcome, and define how that can be supported with some guidance to leadership.
This advice is just a starting point for good communication between you, your manager, and your team. Communication is a two-way street and needs to be constantly fostered with transparency, empathy, and respect.
Always be on the lookout for where you can support and guide management in your company. Your expertise, understanding of your scope of work, and ability to pay attention and build rapport with your team can make all the difference.