Managing Upwards

So many books have been written about managing the people who report to you. But that is easy - you have all the power! What about managing people above you, the people to whom you report? The true art of leadership lies in managing upwards where the power is in "their" hands, not yours. If you can manage upwards, managing downwards is a breeze. I am not suggesting you should manage the people below you by using your power over them. Lead by Greatness is about the very opposite idea: Your positional authority is a last resort, not a primary leadership tool! It is far more effective and personally rewarding to lead people by using the authority and influence of your character and your stature, rather than your positional status. If you lead people with your stature rather than with your status, then leading upwards is as easy as leading downwards; you don't need power in either case.

One of the most important skills in leading upwards is to learn what behaviors and actions of yours could trigger your boss into his or her defensive operating system. When they become defensive they become impossible; sometimes even vindictive, abusive and damaging. Some people strike out when they are in defensive operating systems, others shut down. Some manipulate or play victim, others sabotage. Sometimes people who have been triggered into their defensive operating systems become aggressive, sometimes they become ultra polite. In all cases though, they are impenetrable as they protect their often fragile egos from being exposed to your penetrating intuition, intelligence or competence. In this defensive mode they are not open to communication and cannot be moved or influenced except by a force stronger than they are. People using their defensive operating systems do so out of insecurity. If we trigger people's defenses when they are feeling insecure, even if we do it unintentionally, it might make us feel better but it will never accomplish our goals. So how does one avoid triggering ones boss's defensiveness?

We can all easily be triggered into our defensive, instinctual operating systems, and when we are triggered we behave much as your insecure boss does when he or she is triggered. The challenge is that different things trigger different people. Some of us don't even know exactly what triggers us, it certainly isn't easy to know what triggers others, especially a boss you may not be very close to.

One of the ways to learn what triggers your boss's defensiveness, is to get to know what value-drivers sit at the very core of what, in Lead by Greatness, I call their Spiritual Fingerprints. To get to know this about a person, one needs to connect with them on a personal level, not just a professional one. Try getting into conversation with your boss and finding out what the beliefs and values are for which he or she would sacrifice almost anything (excepting his or her life or the lives and safety of their loved ones). These are likely to be some of the value-drivers that sit at the core of their beings. If you question, attack or threaten any of these core value-drivers you are likely to trigger your boss into his or her instinctual, defensive operating system - something that doesn't bode well for you.

Say for example, your boss might sacrifice her values of generosity and kindness at times but would never sacrifice her integrity or her sense of fairness. Then you can know for sure that if anyone questions her integrity or treats her, or someone she cares about, unfairly, she will spin into her defensive operating system and behave in ways that are completely out of character. In this case you would need to be terribly sensitive to these values of integrity and fairness and make absolutely sure that nothing you say, even in a moment of frustration or anger, undermines her value-drivers of fairness and integrity. If you are cautious in this way, you will find she may well be open to some tough feedback from you without becoming defensive. (By the way, exactly the same applies to the way spouses and partners communicate with one another. Lead by Greatness is not only for business leaders; it is also for anyone who at times needs to influence the way other people act or think.)

It is not as hard as you might think to learn the core value-drivers of others. People appreciate being asked about the things that are deeply important to them, and by doing so you will learn so much about them. Most important, you will learn what could trigger their defensiveness, and how to get the best out of them by helping them stay in their heroic operating systems. It is there that we all shine the most.

For more strategies on managing your boss, you might enjoy Linda Hill and Kent Lineback's article. Linda is a Harvard Business School professor, and Kent an experienced business leader and author. Also Amy Gallo has some excellent advice on Managing an Incompetent Boss. In our next blog article we will look at ways that you can be "insubordinate" without triggering your boss!

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