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Working for a Boss Who Only Manages Up
posted by admin on 21/06/06

"Many people believe that if you are doing a good job and accomplishing something, your bosses necessarily know this, but they don't," 

It's one of the most enduring mysteries of the workplace: How can talented people languish in their jobs unrecognized and under-compensated while others, some seemingly dumb as a stump, thrive and rise? 

The answer lies largely in a skill often cited by experts as one of the greatest determinants of career success: "Managing up" -- more or less the ability to influence your boss to invest in your ideas and advancement. It's one of the cluster of so-called soft skills, including social graces and leadership talent, that have gained almost as much popularity in companies as it has among the legion authors and coaches who profit from it. 

But managing up is a skill so soft it's squishy. It's easily mistaken for something else: self-promotion, manipulation, covering one's fanny, and glossing over the ugly stuff. Sometimes it looks like upward managers are noshing on the fruits of others' labor by presenting their staff's work as their own; other times like they're kissing up -- one of those perceptions that is in the other eye of the beholder. 

Managing up is supposedly distinguished from fawning because it's not done for personal gain but for the benefit of the company that will nevertheless result, some career coaches tell you without irony, in personal gain. 

It's easy to do badly and hard to do with your dignity and friendships uninjured. "This is fraught with danger," says Robert Cialdini, professor of psychology at Arizona State University. "It's one thing that's especially subtle and textured in the way that it works." 

And yet, like buying insurance and flossing, we're all supposed to do it. That's because the notion that you are master of your career is a quaint one. "Many people believe that if you are doing a good job and accomplishing something, your bosses necessarily know this, but they don't," says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. "The only people who can help you are people above you." 

That means, he says, you have to do two things: Tell your boss about your accomplishments and tend to the relationship, including face time, flattery and asking for advice. But those things, I point out, can sound like gross ingratiation, the kind that wins enemies and loses self-respect. "I guess," says Prof. Pfeffer. "But how are you going to fare in a competition against people who have fewer inhibitions?" 

The good news is self-promotion may not work as well as it seems. Arizona State's Prof. Cialdini and Prof. Pfeffer co-authored a recent study in which they found that self-aggrandizers don't pull the wool over the eyes of others as well as they do over their own. The bad news: You have to all but deputize someone as your campaign manager. "Your most subtle and savvy strategy for managing up in terms of presenting or promoting your general accomplishments is to have that information come from the lips of someone else," says Prof. Cialdini of his study's findings. 

Among the most effective ways to manage up, he adds, is to give ownership of your ideas to your boss who is likely, by virtue of being your boss, confident that his ideas are better than yours. "Point out that what you're recommending is logically consistent with a stand they've already taken," says Prof. Cialdini. 

For Jane Vawter, an IT program manager at a nonprofit, managing up is effectively getting to know your boss's preferences, tastes and quirks and then aligning your own with them all so you can "get him/her to allow you to work the way you want." 

It sounds exhausting. "Some are more work than others," she says. But she concedes that anyone who has a good relationship with the boss, rightly or wrongly, "can easily be perceived as someone who kisses up." 

A bigger problem than managing up well is working for someone who manages up to the exclusion of down and sideways. Even the boss being sucked up to won't necessarily appreciate it. Paul Nesbitt, founder of an engineering firm, remembers one employee who was so good at telling him what he wanted to hear that he once listened to a retelling of one of his own stories he had just passed on a few days earlier. "He repackaged it so well he had me listening for a while," he remembers. "Wow, that's really neat," he thought briefly. 

One administrative assistant at a family business, who says she prefers to remain anonymous rather than go into protective custody, has a colleague who manages up by keeping her boss in the dark "so he has to rely on her." Meanwhile, she doesn't help her own reports move up and has withheld approval for training expenses. "You can get an audience with the Pope easier than trying to get her to do something sitting on her desk," she says. 

Upward-only management is one of the intractable problems that even consultants admit is intractable. What's an employee to do? "People ask me this question all the time," says executive coach Marshall Goldsmith. "Prayer is one alternative." Surviving as best you can and looking for another job are others, he says. "I'm a consultant. I'm not a magician."

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