TRANSFORMING MID-LEVEL PROFESSIONALS INTO CONFIDENT COMMUNICATORS AND LEADERS

Managing Upwards? Ask Questions
Published 19 August 2020
However skilled a leader we might be lucky enough to have above us, as leaders ourselves, we need to step up to skilfully manage upwards...
  • My manager doesn’t make any sense.
  • They don’t know what they’re doing.
  • I just don’t get why they keep doing things like that.
  • They just keep throwing more stuff at me, I can’t get it all done!

However skilled a leader we might be lucky enough to have above us, as leaders ourselves, we need to step up to skilfully manage upwards, not just for our own mental health, but also to ensure best outcomes towards our team’s purpose. Those above us do not, and cannot, see the world the way we do.

They can’t have a full understanding of the workload that we or our teams have. They can’t see the nuances and complexities that we see – it takes all perspectives to create great work.

As we learn to step up to take a more strategic leadership approach within our organisations, we learn to recognise the need for us to take a leadership approach in our conversations with those above us so that the flow of ideas, contributions and decision-making is a two-way, more sophisticated and more effective process than a strict hierarchical approach.

Even within organisations with traditional or rigid hierarchies, this need to manage upwards still exists. The leaders above you need to hear your perspective on the challenges, on why different approaches may or may not work, on what workloads are realistic or not. Once you are in the mid-levels you are part of that decision making, strategy setting, culture creating system – the work needs you to step up to managing upwards. Whether you need to push back on a micromanager above you or curtail a flighty innovator with new ideas every day – asking great questions is a key skill to strategically manage upwards.

When we start to think about managing upwards a couple of things often get in the way. We can feel like it’s not our role to “manage” them (..because they are more senior, I should just get on with my work, or they should be able to sort this out) so we step away from pushing back, nod our heads and just get on with it. Or we take an approach of “managing”- of telling the leader above us what they should do and getting really frustrated when we feel like they don’t listen. Asking questions can break both types of blocks.

We do need to keep in mind status and power differences (especially in those hierarchies) – there aren’t many senior leaders who are happy to be told what to do by those below them. (To be fair if you think about what you will be like once you are in that senior role – how would you feel about it?!). Using a question-asking approach to allow respect for those threats to status for more senior leaders. The key to this is not asking judgement questions

e.g. “why are you doing that?!”... (In passive aggressive tones),

but to ask questions that help you understand the perspective that you don’t know yet, e.g.

  • What are you hoping to achieve with that approach?
  • What is the thinking behind this idea?
  • What concerns do you have around this problem?

When we take this approach, we can guide the thinking of the leader above us to consider the issues that we are worried about, without threatening status or appearing to consistently disagree with what they are trying to achieve.
It also allows us to listen more curiously to what that leader is trying to achieve, so we gain more information and understanding that guides our own decisions and work choices. For our micromanagers, this is particularly helpful. When we understand what they are really concerned about, we can begin anticipating those concerns, providing more information in advance, so as to allay those concerns and create some space from that micromanagement.

Using questions can be particularly helpful when it feels like the workload is out of control.

Rather than

  • How am I supposed to get this work done?! or
  • I can’t do that, there’s no time.

Instead we can acknowledge the additional load, remind the leader of the other priorities that we already have and then turn it back to them –

  • Which of these is most important for you to see completed first?
  • I am considering that X and Y are the most important and we can get to this Z next week – will that work for you?

These are subtle changes that can make significant shifts to the conversations that you are having and allow you to begin to lead upwards in ways that build trust without simply saying yes. 

As I support mid-level leaders to develop these subtle conversational skills that support them to manage upwards more effectively we quickly see big leaps in confidence as well as effectiveness as a leader. I see my clients getting far less frustrated and stressed about overwhelm or trying to fix things that aren’t their problem. We get clarity around responsibilities and how to communicate expectations clearly.

Try experimenting with using questions to influence above you, I would love to hear what you notice. And if you would like to hone this skill even further, please get in touch - I can help you develop your leadership in all directions.

Managing Upwards? Ask Questions
Published 19 August 2020
However skilled a leader we might be lucky enough to have above us, as leaders ourselves, we need to step up to skilfully manage upwards...
  • My manager doesn’t make any sense.
  • They don’t know what they’re doing.
  • I just don’t get why they keep doing things like that.
  • They just keep throwing more stuff at me, I can’t get it all done!

However skilled a leader we might be lucky enough to have above us, as leaders ourselves, we need to step up to skilfully manage upwards, not just for our own mental health, but also to ensure best outcomes towards our team’s purpose. Those above us do not, and cannot, see the world the way we do.

They can’t have a full understanding of the workload that we or our teams have. They can’t see the nuances and complexities that we see – it takes all perspectives to create great work.

As we learn to step up to take a more strategic leadership approach within our organisations, we learn to recognise the need for us to take a leadership approach in our conversations with those above us so that the flow of ideas, contributions and decision-making is a two-way, more sophisticated and more effective process than a strict hierarchical approach.

Even within organisations with traditional or rigid hierarchies, this need to manage upwards still exists. The leaders above you need to hear your perspective on the challenges, on why different approaches may or may not work, on what workloads are realistic or not. Once you are in the mid-levels you are part of that decision making, strategy setting, culture creating system – the work needs you to step up to managing upwards. Whether you need to push back on a micromanager above you or curtail a flighty innovator with new ideas every day – asking great questions is a key skill to strategically manage upwards.

When we start to think about managing upwards a couple of things often get in the way. We can feel like it’s not our role to “manage” them (..because they are more senior, I should just get on with my work, or they should be able to sort this out) so we step away from pushing back, nod our heads and just get on with it. Or we take an approach of “managing”- of telling the leader above us what they should do and getting really frustrated when we feel like they don’t listen. Asking questions can break both types of blocks.

We do need to keep in mind status and power differences (especially in those hierarchies) – there aren’t many senior leaders who are happy to be told what to do by those below them. (To be fair if you think about what you will be like once you are in that senior role – how would you feel about it?!). Using a question-asking approach to allow respect for those threats to status for more senior leaders. The key to this is not asking judgement questions

e.g. “why are you doing that?!”... (In passive aggressive tones),

but to ask questions that help you understand the perspective that you don’t know yet, e.g.

  • What are you hoping to achieve with that approach?
  • What is the thinking behind this idea?
  • What concerns do you have around this problem?

When we take this approach, we can guide the thinking of the leader above us to consider the issues that we are worried about, without threatening status or appearing to consistently disagree with what they are trying to achieve.
It also allows us to listen more curiously to what that leader is trying to achieve, so we gain more information and understanding that guides our own decisions and work choices. For our micromanagers, this is particularly helpful. When we understand what they are really concerned about, we can begin anticipating those concerns, providing more information in advance, so as to allay those concerns and create some space from that micromanagement.

Using questions can be particularly helpful when it feels like the workload is out of control.

Rather than

  • How am I supposed to get this work done?! or
  • I can’t do that, there’s no time.

Instead we can acknowledge the additional load, remind the leader of the other priorities that we already have and then turn it back to them –

  • Which of these is most important for you to see completed first?
  • I am considering that X and Y are the most important and we can get to this Z next week – will that work for you?

These are subtle changes that can make significant shifts to the conversations that you are having and allow you to begin to lead upwards in ways that build trust without simply saying yes. 

As I support mid-level leaders to develop these subtle conversational skills that support them to manage upwards more effectively we quickly see big leaps in confidence as well as effectiveness as a leader. I see my clients getting far less frustrated and stressed about overwhelm or trying to fix things that aren’t their problem. We get clarity around responsibilities and how to communicate expectations clearly.

Try experimenting with using questions to influence above you, I would love to hear what you notice. And if you would like to hone this skill even further, please get in touch - I can help you develop your leadership in all directions.