Talking Shop: Teach your staff to manage up

Learn how to teach your employees to manage their managers.

Contrary to popular opinion, most managers want their employees to be successful. While there are certainly the 21st century equivalents of Captain Bligh terrorizing the cubicles of certain organizations, they are the exception and not the rule. Most managers not only want their staff to do well, they need them to do so, since they do most of the work. These managers are also dealing with the ongoing staff shortage problem.

That’s why you see IT managers devoting even more time to what you might call generic management issues. Five years ago, training for the average IT manager started and ended with project management—how to keep complex development efforts on schedule and on budget. Nowadays, you’ll also see technical managers working on communication skills, team building, and career coaching.

This is good news. While IT managers need technical acumen, they also need the ability to motivate and direct their people, just like any other kind of manager. In this article I’m going to explain why I think IT managers should spend less time on how their employees perform their routine tasks and more time on how they interact with their boss.

In other words, you need to spend less time managing your people and more time teaching them how to manage you.
In our new Discussion Center, we’re talking about how to teach your employees to manage you as well as they do their regular tasks. To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provided the best feedback to an Artner’s Laws column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.
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The management bandwidth problem
Let’s make one thing clear up front. I’m not saying that how your staff performs their everyday tasks isn’t important. That’s why you hired them. I am saying that if you want them to be truly successful, they not only have to do those tasks well, but they have to work well with you. They don’t have to like you necessarily, or get you to like them, but they have to work effectively with you.

Why concentrate on getting your staff to “manage up”? To a certain extent, it’s a question of bandwidth. It will take less time to teach your people how to be effective with you than it will for you to figure out to work effectively with all of them.

If you want a technical analogy, consider e-mail encryption. Rather than spend all your time trying to crack the “private key” of each of your employees, wouldn’t it make more sense to just publish your “public key” to each of them, so that they know how to communicate with you?

Showing them what works for you—and what doesn’t
The key to this approach is giving your employees strategies for working with you. Part of this is just positioning. For example, one of your employees requests a meeting to discuss how she is overwhelmed by a difficult workload. You can respond in one of three ways:
  1. “Sure. Schedule 30 minutes and let’s talk about it.” You’ll gain some goodwill by demonstrating some concern, but you’re not giving the person any direction for the meeting.
  2. “Schedule 30 minutes. For the meeting, I want you to bring a list of all the things you’re working on, with indicators showing what can be outsourced, and how much it would cost to do so.” Here, you’ll get the benefit of demonstrating concern, but by managing down to such a detailed level, you don’t allow the employee to feel any ownership. You also don’t teach her how to approach such problems the next time. Granted, a certain percentage of your staff probably favors this approach, but do you really have time to tell everyone who works for you exactly how to perform each of their job duties?
  3. “Schedule 30 minutes. If you want a suggestion, you’re more likely to get my help by talking about your proposed solutions than about how we got in this situation in the first place.” Here, you’re giving the employee a strategy for how to succeed in your meeting, without unduly compromising their freedom of action. Of course, you may want to offer a suggestion or two on tactics (how to accomplish the specific task), but over time you need to give your people the strategies for doing their own problem-solving.

By teaching your employees how to manage up, you give them the opportunity to grow, without forcing them to fend for themselves.

What are your “hot buttons?”
Part of this process of teaching your staff to manage you involves telling them about your hot buttons, the four or five principals to remember when dealing with you. For example, here are some of mine:
  • No surprises: Bad things happen—that’s part of life. When something goes south, I want to know about it.
  • Deliver bad news in person: As I said in my recent column about e-mail, whenever possible give me bad news in person, instead of over the phone or in an e-mail.
  • Don’t bring me problems without solutions: I’m not the oracle at Delphi; I want to hear your ideas before imposing my own.
  • Don’t promise what you can’t deliver: I’d much prefer that you over-deliver than over-promise.
  • Always publish your agenda: Whether it’s a meeting, a lunch, or hallway conversation, when your employees communicate with you, they have a goal in mind. Tell me what that is up front so I don’t have to guess.

That’s my list. I’m sure you have your own.

I’m not arguing that my way is the right way to do business. I am saying that it is the right way to do business with me. Don’t you think your people would benefit from that information, even if they decide to ignore it?

So the next time you’re stymied in trying to figure out how to work with someone on your staff, turn the problem around, and concentrate on how to help that person figure out how to work with you.

Bob Artner is vice president for content development at TechRepublic.

How do you teach your employees to manage you—as well as they do their regular tasks? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provided the best feedback to an Artner’s Laws column, will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug.
To find out each week’s winner and to subscribe to Artner’s Law, sign up for the TechRepublic TechMail now.
If you’d like to suggest a “law” for Bob’s next column, send him a letter.

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