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Managing Up With Courage

Of all the feedback conversations leaders tell me they want to have in the workplace, those directed above their own immediate level in the organization remain the most challenging.

While picking our battles carefully, and recognizing that some issues are just not worth going to bat for, the fear of retaliation, or “getting on the wrong side” of the boss, prevents many leaders from having important, business-critical conversations.

Here are just a handful of issues that potentially offer the opportunity for “managing up”.

Every time a particular challenge presents itself, the boss does everything possible to avoid having to deal with it.

The boss consistently leads with his or her own position in a meeting, and only then asks others on the team what they think.

When someone on the team is clearly not performing up to expectation, the boss refuses to hold that team member accountable.

One-on-one status meetings are missed on a regular basis, and often are not rescheduled.

While it can be difficult for a leader to sit down with a boss and raise any of the issues listed above, the alternative is to settle for a team culture that lacks accountability and a decision-making process that discounts the ideas and perspectives of others on the team.

Fit Leaders do not shy away from having these difficult conversations, even when they involve managing up. They are courageous and show real leadership by articulating their unique points of view.

Often, the biggest barrier to engaging in these important feedback conversations is the absence of a process by which leaders can minimize the fear and defensiveness that usually accompanies the giving of constructive feedback.

The first three steps of our seven-step process for giving constructive feedback can be useful in framing each of the four issues provided above as examples.

The first step involves a clear description of the problem. The second step explains the impact of the behavior being discussed. And, the third step involves asking an open-ended question to get at the cause of the problem.

Let’s look at how this process might be used to courageously “manage up” when addressing some of the issues listed above.

“I wanted to talk with you about how every time the issue of (fill in the blank) comes up in a meeting, we tend to table it or avoid any meaningful engagement around this issue (PROBLEM). When this happens, I worry that we are missing the opportunity to be proactive, and I’m concerned that others may feel that we are afraid to tackle this subject (IMPACT). What is preventing us from dealing directly with this issue, and working toward a solution that is timely (CAUSE)?”

“I wanted to talk with you about our meeting this morning, and particularly your practice of laying out what you think we should do on any given problem before asking for input from the team (PROBLEM). When you lead first with your own position or desired approach, I get the sense that others around the table too easily and too quickly fall in line with your point of view simply because you’re the boss, and that we are potentially missing out on others’ views because they may be uncomfortable speaking out against your position (IMPACT). What is causing you to lead with your own position before seeking input around the table (CAUSE)?”

By preparing and then practicing to have important feedback conversations, utilizing these three steps (Problem, Impact and Cause), leaders can more effectively manage up, and resist the temptation to ignore addressing what they know deserves consideration.

Spend a few minutes and see if you can structure a feedback conversation, utilizing the three-step process, for the third and fourth issues bulleted above.

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