How to manage up and across in the workplace

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Though it may feel like it sometimes, your relationship with your manager is never a one-way street. For better or worse, it’s a reciprocal, long-term bond that can make all the difference to how you experience the workplace, which means it’s worth investing in whether you’re the boss or the subordinate. It’s a similar story with your relationships with peers; they’re worth cultivating for the good of your organization and your overall happinesss.

In our April 15 workshop, part of our Quartz at Work (from home) series, we spoke with one of the leading academics on interpersonal dynamics in the workplace, plus a former chief of staff (a job that’s all about managing up and across), and a startup founder who learned plenty of lessons about what does and doesn’t work in the relationship between bosses and their direct reports.

Click the image above for the full video playback, and read on for a recap of the top tips from our speakers.

The panelists

Tip 1: Evaluate your relationships on six key measures

David Bradford, a longtime lecturer in the Stanford Graduate School of Business elective course affectionately known as “Touchy Feely,” says there are a half dozen dimensions to every relationship you have, whether at work or at home. Ask these questions to determine how strong your relationship really is:

  • To what extent can I be myself with you?
  • To what extent do I build conditions so you can be yourself with me?
  • Can we be honest with each other?
  • If I share personal information with you, can I trust you won’t use it against me?
  • Any relationship will eventually run into disagreements a difficulties. What do we do when we encounter those?
  • Are we committed to each other’s growth and development?

If you ask these questions about your relationship with your boss or your direct reports or peers and aren’t satisfied with all of the answers, read on.

Tip 2: Understand there are power imbalances in most workplace relationships—and ways to mitigate their impact on your ability to work together

If you’re the boss and you’ve noticed that people seem less than straightforward with you or act nervous when it comes to delivering bad news or being vulnerable with you, why not ask your team about it? “Share your intentions,” Bradford said, and ask if you’re doing anything that is holding them back from sharing what you hope they would feel free to share with you. But be prepared to really hear their answer and don’t get defensive, Bradford said. This is more about acknowledging and listening—and hopefully adjusting your behavior if you learn anything about how you might improve the situation.

At Prime Chief of Staff, Catherine Berardi coaches and places chiefs of staff in new roles. It’s a position that often takes on a gatekeeping function, to protect the boss’s time and focus. She recommends starting the job with a listening tour, which can help forge personal relationships with others in the organization. It’s the first step in the building of trust, which can go a long way when you need it. “What we see is if you overemphasize the relationship with your boss to the detriment of your relationship with your peers, that can be disastrous,” Berardi says. “You have to be able to build trust with your colleagues. Your ability then to say, ‘You know what, she’s not available right now, we’re going to have to defer this into next week,” is much greater. The lesson for those of us who aren’t chiefs of staff is two-fold: prioritizing relationships is important, and trust with peers can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

When he was starting PatientPing, Jay Desai had the typical founder’s experience of working shoulder to shoulder with people who felt as much like friends as subordinates. “I used to have everybody over for dinner,” he says. “And then I sort of over-rotated to, like, ‘Oh wow, this is wrong, I’m not giving people boundaries,’ and I created this arm’s-length distance with everyone and created strictly colleague relationships.” Only that didn’t feel right either when it came to people in whom he had “deep, deep, deep trust” and personal connections. “I always felt their should be a new word for this,” Desai said. “It transcends ‘colleague’ but it’s not quite ‘friend’ because there’s still a boss-subordinate relationship. … There’s still a power dynamic that exist.”

Tip 3: Set expectations, especially around communication

When Desai asks someone on his team to take a look at something, he knows there’s a chance the person might not get to it until later on. But he wants acknowledgement either way that the request has been seen. “Some people get an email and say, ‘I’ll get to it when I get to it,’ and have a thoughtful response when they do.” But if they skip the brief acknowledgement that they’ll get to it later on, Desai gets antsy. He realized he, and his direct reports, had enough ticks like this to warrant the creation of a user guide—essentially a manual that tells your teammates how you operate. (He described the concept in depth in this interview with First Round Review.)

A good user guide will let colleagues know how you like to be communicated with, when and on what platforms, and what they can expect from you in response. Desai says his user guide goes into “crystal-clear detail [about] what makes me tick, what I do well, what I don’t do well, where I’m going to get stubborn and annoyed, but also where our relationship is really going to jam.” It’s an efficient way for him to let his staff know how to work with him, but also a way to empower others. Said Desai, “It’s really hard to be yourself when you’re trying to guess what it is the other person wants.”

Another opportunity for bosses to set expectations, he said, is to be transparent about your day—let your team know if you’re too busy on a particular day to chat for very long or to get back to them quickly with responses, for example. This empowers people because it helps them know how to deal with you, i.e. whether they should save their non-urgent questions for you for another time.

Tip 4: Use your one-on-one meetings with the boss for something beyond a status update

Berardi recommends taking advantage of one-on-one time to have a discussion that can elevate your thinking, help you solve a problem, or assist you in your career development. “Think beyond just your day to day,” she said, and figure out how to best capitalize on your access to your boss. A more strategic discussion reflects well on you, and likely benefits your work as well.

Tip 5: If biases or identity differences are present in your relationship, confront them

Bradford offered some excellent advice for women and people of color, who don’t always get the same things from their managers as their white male peers do. For example, they’re less likely to get the tough feedback they need in order to improve in their jobs.

Oftentimes, Bradford said, “white male managers unfortunately haven’t done their homework to know how to be comfortable with people of color and women.” It’s up to the direct reports, in that case, to broach the subject. “I’m not saying this is fair,” Bradford said, acknowledging the extra burden this puts on the direct report. “But if we wait for white [male] managers to wake up to their responsibilities, we’re going to be waiting a hell of a long time.”

Be proactive. If feedback is an issue, tell your boss you’re aware of what the research shows but that you can handle the tough critiques. “I think this is unfair to put the responsibility on women and people of color,” Bradford said, “but I want people to feel effective, and I think you can do things not to placate the white manager but to let them know that you want a relationship that is very open. I think you’re in a position to define the sort of relationship you want with your white male boss.”

Tip 6: Create space for the relationship to deepen

When Berardi was chief of staff to Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments in Chicago, many of their interactions took place in the meeting after the meeting—on the plane or in the car or during downtime while traveling. Creating these kinds of interactions is especially tricky in a virtual workplace, but it can be done. Mark your calendars for a post-mortem after an important client call, for example. Debriefing can be valuable, especially on days where you’re otherwise back-to-back with calls.

Tip 7: Consider going to your boss’s boss when things aren’t going well

This was Desai’s advice. As a CEO, he wanted to know when the people he hired to run teams weren’t meeting the expectations of their direct reports. He found this level of insight very valuable.

Bradford agreed with this, but with one important caveat: it’s “not the first thing to do.” Try working out your problems with the manager directly at first; go over their heads only when your efforts stall (or, obviously, if something egregious occurs and you would need to get HR involved).

Tip 8: Remember why you want these relationships to work

When you’re on solid footing with your boss and your peers, your work life is probably happier, your work is probably better, and your company is probably stronger as a result.

“Managing up isn’t just making your boss look good,” Berardi said. “It’s about the betterment of the entire organization.”