Why your firm needs good upward management

In every firm I’ve worked with, there are always some juniors who are instinctively great at managing their managers. They raise difficult issues with no difficulty; they get their great ideas tabled at big meetings; and they are able to move their careers forward without appearing over-assertive. In fact, those workers who are good at these conversations tend to be more satisfied at work, and to feel more fulfilled in their career. All of this translates into better working relationships and higher staff retention.

But when companies start to think about training their staff to be good upward managers, it’s often met by resistance from those who might be managed upwards. They’re scared that it might erode their power, or make it harder to stay within budget.

From what I have seen, as well as from the research I have read, it has the opposite effect. And you can see why when you break down what successful upwards management looks like. When I train people to be better upward managers, one key area we focus on is how to take requests to your boss. We focus on developing five key skills:

1. Choosing the right time

There’s no point going to see a boss about a pay rise when their budget is all used up for the year. There’s no point having a conversation about a new project when everyone is flat out, working every hour, on the current projects and will be for the next month or so. Helping your employees recognise the ideal time to have these conversations will remove their frustrations at meeting a well-intended but necessary ‘no’. And it will help to remove a boss’ frustrations at the employee’s bad timing.

2. Preparing well

Bosses are busy people, with big demands on their time. It’s really helpful to remind juniors of this: managers are rarely trying to be brusque, or tricky. They’re just busy and have lots of competing priorities. If juniors can find the evidence, and marshall it well, they’ll have a much better chance of having a successful outcome. And it’s great for the manager because it means that only the best ideas with a decent evidence base get to them. It’s key to prompt juniors to find good evidence, weight it, and present it well.

3. Recognising your power bases

Juniors who are instinctively good at managing their managers are usually good at recognising where they have power, and where they don’t. Great ideas, indispensible skills, and a strong organisational network are example of areas from which juniors can derive useful power. Shouting loudly is rarely an effective strategy; threatening to leave has to be a last resort because you can’t keep doing it. As such, helping juniors to realise where they have power will help them to channel them in a more positive way and help the firm see how they can be used successfully. Win-win for the manager and their report.

4. Removing the emotion

Teaching staff to hold their temper, and to keep their emotions in check, even in difficult situations, can be really helpful. Even the calmest stuff can get antsy and riled in a stressful conversation. By helping staff to see conversations as necessary, rather than stressful, and showing them how they can be calm and considered in approach, then upwards management strategies are more likely to work, without the need for calming down periods, HR intervention, or creating issues in what might otherwise be a very successful working relationship.

5. Following up

Too often, conversations are left hanging in the ether. Managers don’t have the time to draw the threads together and move things forward; employees perhaps lack the confidence, the skill or the energy to set a future time to check in about this issue again. Encouraging juniors to be confident and equipping them with the skills to ask for structured time on this issue again can help managers with their own diaries and take the responsibility away from them of having to move good ideas forward.

As can be seen above, training workers to be good at upward management can really help managers and juniors to gain and maintain great working relationships. This can have a positive impact on retention, satisfaction and reduce the need for other forms of staff development. Additionally, juniors’ faith that their firm takes them seriously and is prepared to listen to them can really be bolstered with a focus on training/coaching them to be confident with upward management.


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