For many organizations today, hierarchy is a challenge. If it’s standard practice for the biggest decisions to be made at the top, affecting everything done by the rank and file, the potential pitfalls lie in the middle. It’s here that delays can occur, messages might get muddled, or actions break down into inefficiency.
Flattening the hierarchy isn’t a widely applicable solution: too many organizations have a high management-to-staff ratio for that to work. Out of necessity, middle management roles must be occupied.
When middle managers do their job, it’s like a great dog-training program for the organization. Suddenly, what the executives desire to happen is being done on command, without hesitation.
And when they fail, things unravel like a child’s game of telephone, only with higher stakes and far less hilarity.
An untaught management skill
Many students can pick up rudimentary management skills as they go through school. And those who take their education further can enroll in degree programs that offer formal training in this area.
However, most of these learning opportunities only teach management in one direction: downwards. You learn how to analyze data, formulate objectives, lead a team, and motivate people to achieve the desired results.
The skill of managing up is less taught. Even in graduate school, you might only acquire passing familiarity with this concept.
This means that many people realize that the supervisory relationship works both ways when they’re already on the job. They’ve been thrust into middle management and suddenly find that the problem isn’t just getting their team to respond.
It’s figuring out what the boss really wants and how to prioritize, filter, and push back against an endless torrent of delegated tasks, conflicting deadlines, and feedback opportunities.
Communication is the key
You don’t get into a middle management role without displaying some combination of ability and learning potential. But this particular skill is made difficult by the pressure of learning on the fly, with real stakes and little room for error.
Top-level leaders also tend to have strong personalities and unique quirks. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a boss who’s reasonable, patient, and straightforward. Maybe you’ll even have the benefit of a mentor who can help you navigate your way around working with the top brass.
More likely, though, you won’t have any of those benefits to make your job easier.
However, it’s easier to learn how to manage up if you frame this challenge as a specific kind of communication skill.
In middle management, we’re often familiar with the downward direction of communication. Everyone has been in the position of being led, as children, by parents and teachers. Many also come through the ranks from entry-level positions.
Learning from such experiences is valuable but also disproportionately enforces the idea of leadership communication as a one-way transaction.
All communication is a two-way street. You have to actively listen to what the other person is saying to make sure you get the essence of their message. That includes unstated concerns, which may often be more important than the verbatim.
Learn to implement this skill in any direction, and you’ll help your organization while also boosting your career prospects.
Managing up doesn’t have to be difficult because you already possess the skill of communication. You have to practice directing it upwards.
It’s not about manipulating your boss, pushing back for the sake of showing some backbone, or even searching for win-win solutions.
If you have to resort to extreme tactics or find yourself spurred by questionable motivations, it might help to step back and reflect. Is your boss too unreasonable to work with? Are you in this position and organization for the right reasons?
When done correctly, managing up is your way to exert some upward influence.
Listen to what your boss is really saying when they give directives. Sometimes they’re waiting for you to step up and offer input, point out flaws in the plan, and volunteer solutions. Sometimes, they want to get a task off their plate in the knowledge that you’ll definitely get it done.
If you’re uncertain, ask probing questions, just as you would when coaching one of your subordinates. Why is this role being delegated to your team? Why are you being asked to cascade the message? You may need to pose these questions more subtly, but the point is, you’re trying to find out how you come in and bring value to the equation.
As you practice your communication skill upwards, you can negotiate for the support you’ll need to execute on the vision from above. And if you’ve identified opportunities to improve, or forestall potential issues, speak up in the right way, presenting your own solutions, and you can influence outcomes.