Managing Upwards: Are You the Problem?

22 September, 2014

In the previous article, we explained the importance of speaking the same language as the boss and making sure that your project fulfils its expectations. However, being able to speak the boss’s language and being aware of where your project fits into the overall strategy, may not be enough to establish a successful, professional relationship with your manager.

Of course, the boss may be a tyrant, or incompetent or even a psychopathic bully, but the problem could also lie with you and how you are engaging with your manager. Remember the Project Stakeholder Management knowledge area from your PMP® exam days? Well your manager is a key stakeholder and you need to devote some serious consideration to analysing the sort of management your boss requires. That might involve drastically revising your current engagement style.

You could, for instance, find yourself working for one of the top minds in your field. Maybe a lecturer that really inspired you in college has returned to the “real world” and you find yourself working for a person you are frankly in awe of. In this situation, there is a genuine danger that you will become sycophantic and agree with everything your manager says, just because you genuinely believe that s/he can do no wrong.

If your manager is also trying to do a professional job, this approach can be intensely frustrating. What is the point of bouncing ideas off you, if you only ever respond by saying how great they are? Academics, in particular, are used to having their work criticized and it might be better to take a “devil’s advocate” position and question aspects of the boss’s ideas that you may find strange, or even downright wrong.

Of course, there is no reason why you cannot be polite about this. Being critical of an idea does not mean having to jeer at it or to be offensive in your remarks. However, you can ask for confirmation: “I’m not sure what you are trying to do here?” or “Why did you not use Method X for this part of the process?” Now you are providing feedback – forcing the boss to explain the idea. You are also introducing alternatives, which might be just what the boss needs to develop this into a workable solution. More importantly, you have shown that you are an effective person to brainstorm with. This will encourage the boss to seek you out when s/he is building up future teams.

If you are a junior Project Manager, you might be anxious to prove yourself and to establish independence. Have you a tendency to strike off on solo runs and wait until you have a tangible result before reporting to the boss? If you do, consider how you respond to that sort of behaviour among your own project team. Do you find it frustrating when your people are working away and you are not sure exactly what they are up to? So think how your boss is feeling. If you go off on a sideshow project, you could be consuming expensive resources on a scheme that might not provide any business value.

Nor knowing what your reports are up to makes managers very nervous. It also reduces trust and you will find your boss will keep you on a very tight rein, even if your solo scheme proves to be very successful. If you feel that you are being micro-managed, just ask yourself if you have gone off to pursue your own agenda in the past? If you have, that explains the boss’s reluctance to leave you too much freedom in future.

Are you afraid of your boss? This is a similar problem to being in awe of your manager, but the issue here is a total aversion to reporting problems. As a Project Manager, it is your role to report the state of the project. If there are issues, you need to report them upwards, together with suggestions for getting the project back on track. If you tend to bury your head in the sand and pray to whatever deities you can think of for miracles, a day of reckoning is awaiting you. If, at the end of the day, your project does not deliver and it transpires in the post-mortem that you could see the project going off the rails, this will probably be the last project you will manage in your organization. Your manager expects problems – projects all have elements of uncertainty – but your role is to manage them. If you choose to ignore them, the boss can no longer trust you to report honestly on the project. Not reporting destroys trust.

Of course, you could be driving your boss mad by reporting too much. At every level in the hierarchy, raw data needs to be analysed and summarized. As a Project Manager you need to spare the boss the nitty-gritty details of your project. You need to report overall status, with more details on areas of concern – such as activities that are proving troublesome. If you produce massive reports and report on every single action the project team has taken, your boss will soon get overwhelmed with detail and will likely become hostile towards you. Do you find it difficult to get face-time with your boss? Do you feel your boss is avoiding you? Well maybe that could be because s/he is being overwhelmed by your detail. Learn to summarize because you are not the boss’s only concern and s/he is not in a position to wallow in the level of detail you have access to.

So if you feel you have a poor manager, spend a little time reflecting on your own style when engaging with the boss. Think for a moment what it is like to have someone like you reporting to you. If you do not like what you see, take steps to modify your behaviour. You might start seeing a marked improvement in the boss’s behaviour as well.

Velopi’s project management training courses cover Project Stakeholder Management. If you would like to develop your skills in this area, our project management certification courses are held in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway for your convenience. Find out more by visiting our training page or by contacting us directly.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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