IN THE TRENCHES
By Rebecca Gardyn
Only eight months after taking a job overseeing a small Atlanta charity's after-school programs,
Ian North was already burning out.
The intense workload was weighing him down, but even more frustrating was having a supervisor who seemed unsupportive of his efforts.
"Sometimes he would give me a task and just leave me alone to figure out how to get it done," Mr. North says. "He would come by and ask 'how's it going?' but then proceed to check his cell-phone messages five times during the course of our conversation. I didn't feel like I had the support I needed. I almost quit."
But Mr. North enjoyed the substance of his work too much to do that. So, one day in the spring of 2002, he made a radical move: He asked his boss to lunch. Over the course of the hour, Mr. North recalls, he calmly and honestly explained his concerns and proposed solutions. The plan worked wonders. His supervisor "said that he wished I'd said something sooner," says Mr. North. "From that point on, whenever I'd call with a request, my boss would quickly connect me with the necessary resources. An hour of open communication changed everything." Mr. North happily worked for the organization another two and a half years, until he took a job at a public-relations company in Chicago.
Nonprofit workers often feel that, when it comes to their supervisor's management style, they have no choice but to accept it. After all, goes conventional wisdom, some bosses are simply difficult, and if saddled with one, an underling has but two choices: the boss's way, or the highway.
But there's another way: "managing up." While no one has the power to change someone else's personality, employees can, by altering their own attitudes and behaviors, spark changes in the way their supervisors interact with them. In fact, say management experts, employees who take control of their working relationships not only report feeling better about their job performance, but learn how to be more effective when it's their turn to lead.
At charities, where managers often ascend to their positions via the program ranks -- sometimes acquiring little supervisory experience along the way -- knowing how to manage up can become a crucial skill for underlings. Also, nonprofit managers often have to juggle their own projects and deadlines in addition to supervising others, says Patti Hathaway, a consultant in Columbus, Ohio, and author of Managing Upward: Strategies for Succeeding With Your Boss (Crisp Publications, 1992, $13.95). These "working managers," as Ms. Hathaway calls them, differ from their counterparts in the for-profit world, who may be responsible only for managing other people.
Also, she notes, because charities are so often strapped for resources, the one in charge may be managing a very large number of staff members and volunteers. As a result, she says, "if you're not managing your boss, and someone else is, they probably have a better relationship with them than you do."Compensating for Weaknesses
Handy Lindsey, now the executive director of the Cameron Foundation, in Petersburg, Va., remembers well his first job in the nonprofit field, and his first experience managing up. His boss, an "absolutely brilliant individual," Mr. Lindsey says, had one major flaw: "zero people skills. He would totally run over people, and because of it, didn't always get the best cooperation from the staff."
Mr. Lindsey sensed his boss's insecurities as a leader and instinctively made an effort to show respect for his position at the top. "I made it clear from the beginning," he says, "that I knew he was the boss and, as his subordinate, it was part of my job to help him implement his vision, not to change it or to implement a vision of my own."
Indeed, one of the first keys to managing up successfully is making sure that the boss feels secure in his role at the top, says Steven Katz, a nonprofit veteran and the author of Lion Taming: Working Successfully with Leaders, Bosses, and Other Tough Customers (Sourcebooks, 2004, $19.95). In his book, Mr. Katz shows how managing-up skills are analogous to those used by actual lion tamers. He says that bosses, like lions, are most worried about maintaining and protecting their dominance, territory, social standing, and survival, and anything that an employee does to threaten any of those things can spoil a good working relationship.
"Believe it or not, a boss, much like a lion, doesn't know right away whether you are there to waste their time, help them, or hurt them," he says. "That's why lion tamers initially spend so much of their time getting the lion on the pedestal, making them feel like they are dominant over something, and proving that no one is going to dislodge them from that position."
Mr. Lindsey helped his boss feel comfortable in part by taking time to learn about his manager's motivations and goals. He observed, asked questions, and took mental notes on how his boss handled certain circumstances. "I thought that if I could get into his head, I could anticipate his needs," he says. "Over time, my supervisor realized that I did understand him and, as a result, began to trust me and give me more responsibility and authority."
He also kept his boss feeling safe by assisting with tasks that seemed to give his supervisor the most difficulty. "My boss had problems communicating with the staff," he says. "I saw that I could help by becoming a 'buffer' between him and the rest of the staff, smoothing feathers so that his ideas became more acceptable to them. My boss later told me how appreciative he was of my helping him do his job more effectively." Mr. Lindsey eventually became the supervisor's second-in-command, and they worked together successfully for eight years.
Identifying and compensating for a boss's weaknesses are skills that all employees should learn, says Robert Turknett, a psychologist and consultant in Atlanta who advises nonprofit organizations. "Bosses are human beings with strengths and weaknesses, just like the rest of us," says Mr. Turknett, who with his wife, Carolyn, wrote Decent People, Decent Company: How to Lead with Character at Work and in Life (Davies-Black Publishing, 2005, $25.95). "An employee's strategy, therefore, should be to figure out how to help their boss reduce the frequency of the weak behaviors, so that the employee is no longer affected by them."
For example, a disorganized boss's weakness may be that he forgets to regularly give constructive criticism to his staff members, says Mr. Turknett. Rather than simply complain, he says, an employee who wants additional feedback should take responsibility for getting it and say something like, "I've found in previous jobs that I am more productive when I get feedback on a monthly basis. Could we schedule 10 minutes every first Monday of the month to talk about my performance?"
If the boss is so disorganized that he forgets or cancels the meetings, be diligent about rescheduling them, advises Mr. Turknett: "Keep rescheduling until he realizes that you are determined to get what you need from him no matter what."Clearing the Air
Sometimes, though, getting a supervisor's attention long enough to make such a request can be tricky. Part of managing up means learning how, when, and where to approach the boss, says Mr. Katz -- and that may not be in his or her office. In fact, more than half of the supervisors that Mr. Katz interviewed for his book said that they preferred not to be confronted at their desks. "It makes them feel cornered and vulnerable," he says.
As an example, Mr. Katz describes a former supervisor who asked him to report to his office every morning at 6:15, but whenever Mr. Katz arrived, the boss was always preoccupied. "He didn't realize it, but he just didn't feel comfortable talking across the desk from me," says Mr. Katz.
Eventually, Mr. Katz tried a new approach. He went into his boss's office, said "I'm here," then stood next to another set of chairs on the opposite side of the room. When the boss was ready, he came over and they started the meeting. "He seemed much more comfortable with this arrangement, and so that's what we did from then on," he says, adding that other good meeting places are empty conference rooms and restaurants. "If you ever feel like you are spending more time getting your boss's attention than using it, you haven't found his comfort zone, so keep suggesting other alternatives, because he won't be ready or able to listen to your needs until you find it."
Once employees figure out where to talk with their supervisors, they must work on how, says Ms. Hathaway. She suggests setting up regular 10-minute meetings, at least biweekly, to discuss tasks recently completed and current priorities. "The more you keep your boss informed, the less you'll get blindsided, and the less he'll get blindsided," she says. If a boss seems resistant to checking in so frequently, write a brief status report and send it to him or her via e-mail every month or two weeks for approval.
Indeed, one of the frustrations that employees often face is difficulty pinning down their bosses' expectations, says Francie Dalton, a management consultant in Columbia, Md., who works with nonprofit clients. She says many bosses create misunderstandings when they "delegate on the run." Such supervisors, she says, "just assume that their employees will know exactly what they want, when in fact, they are often totally confused." The problem becomes more pronounced with bosses who often change their minds, or forget what orders they've given from one day to the next, she says.
To cope, Ms. Dalton suggests using what she calls "FIB," or "fill In the blank," questions. For instance, she suggests, when expectations aren't clear, ask: "I will have accomplished this project successfully if I do blank?" -- with the "blank" filled in with a specific task. "By asking an FIB question," Ms. Dalton says, "the employee forces the supervisor to be very specific in his orders, making it almost impossible not to surpass the boss's expectations."The Role of Flattery
Managing up also requires praising bosses, because the more acknowledged they feel, the more confident they will be in their leadership abilities, and the more productive they will be, says Mr. Turknett. "Reinforce what he's doing right and that will encourage him to do more of it," he says.
But be careful, says Ms. Hathaway: "There is a fine line between praising up and sucking up." When offering compliments, she says, be very specific and sincere. Avoid obvious flattery like, "You're the best boss I've ever had." And praise should be given in private. "Public displays, even if they are sincere, will appear to your co-workers as sucking up," says Ms. Hathaway.
Of course, employees who don't have anything nice to say shouldn't say anything at all. Workers who say or do anything to make their bosses feel insecure are only sabotaging their own futures, says Mr. Turknett.
He recalls working with a nonprofit employee whose supervisor gave him a poor performance appraisal, even though he and his boss used to work well together. The employee told Mr. Turknett that he and his boss had had a falling out, and ever since, the employee had been keeping a low profile. The problem with avoiding supervisors, however, is that it sends the not-so-subtle message that their workers mistrust or disapprove of their leadership, says Mr. Turknett. That message triggers defensiveness and retaliation, he says, which in this case was manifested as a poor performance review.
Mr. Turknett offered his client this prescription: "For two weeks, I told him to do his best to find ways to engage with his supervisor, provide him with genuinely positive messages about his leadership skills." After the two weeks, the relationship was on the road to recovery. Both parties began to gain trust and respect for each other again, and the two went on to accomplish many successful projects together.Offering Criticism
That is not to say that workers should conceal issues they have with their leader's management skills. Indeed, many employees spend too much time "whining and dining" -- Ms. Hathaway's term for gossiping over lunch with co-workers -- and too little time doing anything about their gripes.
"Everyone complains about problems," she says. "But if you want to form a better relationship with your boss, start standing out as a problem solver. The boss's job is to solve problems, so if you can help him do that, you are showing that you are also worthy of a leadership role down the road."
Bosses often admire and reward employees who aren't afraid to tactfully speak their minds, says Mr. Lindsey. In recalling his first nonprofit job, he says: "Those at the organization who stood their ground with the boss while respectfully acknowledging 'you are the leader, and I'm here to help you' fared much better than those who either didn't stand their ground or were just argumentative. Ultimately, the latter types were moved out of the organization."
Now, as a boss himself, Mr. Lindsey recognizes how difficult it can be to manage one's supervisor, and he applauds those who have made the effort with him.
"The employees who stand out are the ones who take the time to understand what I am trying to accomplish, and when they see me making decisions or taking actions that veer from my vision, they gently remind me and bring me back on track," he says. "Managing up is not easy, and to do it effectively, you've got to do it actively and deliberately, and always, always, with complete and total respect."
How good are you at "managing up"? Offer techniques that have worked for you in the Share Your Brainstorms online forum.