Managing Up and Down

Thursday, July 1, 2010 - 08:54

Almost all leaders and managers have bosses and subordinates. It's important to manage productively in both directions.

Harold Resnick has earned international recognition as a leading authority and innovator in organisational transformation and leadership development. Dr Resnick founded Work Systems Associates (WSA), a management and organisational development consulting firm that developed proprietary systems used by client organisations to develop their leadership talent, address team issues, build quality systems, and achieve transformational change. He also founded Generation21 Learning Systems, a software company that developed one of the seminal enterprise-wide web-based training and knowledge management systems. Here he sets out guidelines for managing healthy, productive relationships, up and down.

Managing up

These guidelines can create a relationship based on respect and trust. Even difficult relationships can be managed well if these four principles are followed.

Clarify expectations

Most managers think that they do a good job of setting expectations with their employees. Unfortunately, many employees don't share that assessment. Employees often state: "I know the tasks assigned to me and I may even know my short-term goals. But I am not clear about the longer-term strategic aspects of what is expected of me. And I am not sure exactly how my performance is going to be measured."

Employees complain about this lack of clarity but few take action to resolve it. They believe it is their manager's job to provide clear, measurable expectations. Yet, both employee and manager will ultimately pay the price for this lack of clarity.

Therefore, the first step in managing upward is ensuring that you and your manager have agreed on short-term results and longer-term strategic objectives that define your success, as well as the measures for determining whether they have been met.

If your manager does not provide this clarity then it is your responsibility to take the initiative to seek it. If your manager still does not provide specifics then draft what you believe to be your definition of success and meet with him/her to gain agreement.

Agreement on expectations is the foundation of your work relationship. If it is not established and agreed, then your foundation is not on solid ground.

Agree on priorities

Once expectations are agreed, the next step is to agree on their prioritisation. 'Everything is top priority' means essentially that nothing is top priority.

Ask the question: "If one goal were to fall off the table but everything else was to be achieved, which goal is the one you would choose to omit?". Continue that process until all the goals are prioritised.

Provide feedback. No surprises

No one likes surprises, especially those typical of the business environment. Provide regular updates regarding your goals and their status. Notify your manager of any changes that are likely to impact results. Don't withhold information. Share concerns and suspicions as well as factual updates. Conduct regularly scheduled one-on-one reviews to make sure that you and your manager remain fully aligned.

Maintain change proactively

Goals and plans describe the future we want to create, but are not guaranteed. The business environment rarely behaves to plan. Sometimes changes can be absorbed. Other times changes require a modification of expectations or the development of new strategies.

Leaders who successfully manage their relationships with their bosses anticipate these changes or see them coming very early. They develop alternative paths forward and meet to discuss them while their bosses still have choices. No one likes to be faced with difficult situations and few options.

Managing down

The same principles for managing up apply when managing those who report to you, with a few additional elements.

Set clear, measurable expectations

This same rule applies to managing down as well as up. Understand your organisational requirements, translate them into your own measurable goals, and then cascade them into clear measurable expectations downward.

Provide regular feedback

Everyone craves feedback, even when it's not positive. Feedback should be delivered regularly, with thought and care. The purpose of feedback is to reinforce positive performance and improve performance where needed. This is best done through honest communications, coaching and counselling; not abuse, sarcasm or the silent treatment.

Support performance

Employees may need help to achieve their goals in the form of coaching, resources, training, access to information, and so on. Understand what employees need and then provide them with the support required so that they can be successful.

Provide autonomy

No one likes to be micromanaged, feel that their every move is being watched or that their boss is looking over their shoulder. Employees want the breathing room and opportunity to succeed in their own way. Use feedback and coaching to help employees, but do not suffocate or over-manage.

Recognise achievement

Everyone craves recognition and likes to be told when they have done well. Most managers criticise too much and too quickly, and praise or recognise very little. Taking five minutes to acknowledge a job well done can have dramatic impact. Recognising good performance stimulates greater effort in the future.

These principles for managing up and down are fundamental and define the contract that should exist in all work settings. They are the equivalent of 'blocking and tackling'. That's how football games are won and how businesses create both productive employees and organisational results.

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