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Managing up: How to manage your boss

How to manage your boss

One of the questions I’m often asked is: “How do I get taken seriously at work?” And over my career I have asked myself that question as well. One way to build credibility in the workplace was explained by Dr Lynda Bourne recently at the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin.

Let’s talk about managing up.

Dublin Convention Centre

Dublin Convention Centre

Managing upwards

Project managers aren’t the ones in charge. We work for the people at the top of the tree: project sponsors and senior executives. Managing upwards means managing sponsors and maintaining organisational commitment. It’s probably more accurate to think of it as advising upwards and it is one of the skills that Bourne says project managers often lack.

Bourne explained that no single stakeholder type should be considered as being more important than the others. Customers are not more important than technical staff. Vendors are not more important than employees. She said that the high priority stakeholders are the most important right now. You’ll have to work out who is the highest priority stakeholder for you.

“The only way to engage senior stakeholders so they help you when you need them is to start early and build credibility,” she said.

Provide the right information

“The only way to build those relationships is communication,” Bourne said. “There is absolutely nothing else.”

Managers are busy people. They do not like surprises. They need information but it must be specific to their needs and help them do their job and help them make their decisions.

Providing relevant information is one way to build credibility, and it helps them look credible to their bosses too. “Steer your ship along and provide them with the information they need to look good,” Bourne said.

Be helpful

Providing information is good, but think through what you are giving them and why. “The concept of ‘I’ll just do a report’ will not persuade people,” Bourne said.

Communication must be:

  • Purposeful: why are you giving this report? Is it to change an attitude, to get a decision or something else?
  • Targeted: specific to the stakeholder.
  • Appropriate in form and content: does the exec want a diagram? A spreadsheet? Have you even asked them?
  • Monitored for effectiveness: check in with how the attitude-changing is going. Has the communication had any impact? If not, change it.

Be the person who is helpful. Recognise that your project is only one of a hundred and that you have to help them manage their time as well. This helps you build up what Bourne calls ‘credibility points’ for when things go wrong.

Be intelligently disobedient

Managers are normal people. They might not be able to have all the answers because they may still be learning their job. Be sympathetic and realise they have jobs to do too.

“You do not always have to follow the rules,” Bourne said.  “If your boss is requesting that you do something that you know is not the best thing for the boss, the organisation, the team and yourself, then you must speak up.”

Bourne talked about the concept of intelligent disobedience. Intelligent disobedience is what they teach guide dogs. It helps them know when to ignore the request of the blind person when crossing the road, for example, is not safe.

In the workplace it translates to having the confidence to challenge decisions. Being able to say no to your manager helps you build credibility.

Top tips for advising up

Bourne gave us some tips for helping managers to help us:

  • Support the transition to the C-suite
  • Recognise that it takes a while for people to change their mindsets
  • Know that they need to advise up too
  • Remove the idea that risk is bad news
  • Build a sponsor culture from above and below
  • Understand their drivers and expectations
  • Work to build credibility and trust

“Never assume that you know enough about your stakeholders as their views will change,” Bourne said. “You have to constantly review and maintain those relationships. Do not assume that you have ever done enough to engage them.”
Tips on how to manage up and help build a great relationship with your boss

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.


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