How to ‘manage up:’ The ‘what-if’ approach

Managing Up and "What If?"

One of the hardest things for most people at the low/middle arc of organizations to do is “manage up,” which I think means “stretching yourself” and/or “having a better relationship with your boss.” I had a bit of a mental breakdown last weekend when I realized that I’ve had really good relationships with a bunch of managers, but usually my direct boss isn’t always a massive fan at the two-to-three-year mark. I think that’s because I try to throw new ideas into the ether, and most organizational cultures are set up to get along — which is very different than embracing new ideas.

So … if you want to manage up — which would seem to be the key to getting a promotion, more money, and more responsibility over time — how do you do that?

Here’s one idea.

This is from the CEO of Shambaugh Leadership, via Harvard Business Review. Here’s the article. Here’s a section to consider:

One way to build on your boss’s responses during the open dialogue stage is to have some “what if” responses ready to go. “What if” responses give you a way to further the conversation by suggesting specific actions that you might take when your boss makes a general suggestion. For example, if your boss says that you need more cross-functional experience before you can advance, you might reply with an exact strategy that you could implement to get that experience such as:

  • “What if I work directly with the marketing department on the Johnson campaign?”

There are a couple of other examples, but you get the idea.

This is somewhat interesting, because we live in a world where most bosses don’t understand motivation, don’t have time to respect you, and can barely set their own priorities. In such a world, managers focus on their own stuff and protect their own necks; this is all a factor of the 2008 crash, essentially.

The reason that a ‘What If?’ strategy could work, though, is because you’re essentially painting your manager into a corner. You’re calling them on their “OMG I AM SO BUSY!” garbage. You’re saying, “Well, I understand you are busy and over-extended, but what if we changed this one aspect of how we do things?” It’s not necessarily going to lead to more money — remember, earnings are stagnant — but it might lead to more responsibility and/or a chance to get more in front of the SVPs/C-Suiters/top dogs. That’s important, because in most companies, those are the people who actually matter — and the people who vet decisions.

So that’s it: when your boss throws turds and/or shade at you about how there’s no logical next step in terms of responsibility or money, simply respond with “Hey, what if we did this?” or “What if we approached it like this?” or “What if I handled this part of the deal?”

That’s it. It’s not that complicated. What if. It’s designed to open a world of possibilities, and maybe it could for you professionally.

Ted Bauer