Imagine this: your manager is eager to launch a new project. You’re supportive of the idea, but worried that the proposed timeline is unrealistic. You know you should speak up, but fear that doing so will be seen as negative, unsupportive or even limit your opportunities within the company. If you don’t, you worry about  long hours, late nights and the possibility of failing to meet your manager’s expectations.

Sound familiar? At a recent leadership program in Hong Kong I asked those in attendance what they thought was most difficult: managing up (influencing superiors), managing down (influencing subordinates), or managing across (influencing peers). More than two-thirds of leaders indicated that managing up was the most challenging.

Managing up often creates anxiety in most people, regardless of how experienced they may be. In Asia, cultural norms may make it more challenging, as traditionally deference is given to those with the most experience and to challenge those with authority is seen as a sign of disrespect. However, In the modern workplace, managers expect to have their ideas challenged and encourage junior executives to voice their opinions. Managing up is therefore a critical skill that a successful leader must learn.

Managing up requires both internal reflection and external communication. The next time you need to manage up, think of these two elements:

1. Reflect on your internal scripts

How we communicate is influenced by a variety of factors including past experience, cultural norms, gender, and our view of authority. These factors form an internal dialogue or script that may affect how we make decisions. With constructed stories of fear, inadequacy, or shame playing on a loop in our heads, we might struggle to find confidence to effectively manage up. The first step is to pause and reflect on why you are concerned about the situation. What do you think might happen? What reaction are you worried about? Then you must ask yourself whether this is true or likely to happen. Often just pausing to take a moment to consider our internal dialogue will help us make decisions from a better place and give us confidence to managing up.

2. Use these tips to structure your external communication

In her article “How to Disagree with Someone More Powerful Than You” in Harvard Business Review Amy Gallo provides these tips:

  • Identify a shared goal: consider what this person person cares about. Is it credibility, image, dedication? You’re more likely to be heard if you connect your concerns to a shared purpose.
  • Ask for permission to disagree: this gives your superior psychological safety and a sense of control. Say something like, “I have some concerns about this project. Would it be okay if I lay out some of my reasoning?”
  • Validate the original point: articulate the idea, opinion, or proposal that you disagree with as much clarity as possible. You want your superior to know you fully understand what is in question.
  • Stay calm: while you might be feeling anxious, don’t let your body language undercut your message. For some insight into the power of non-verbal communication, check out Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk, Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.
  • Acknowledge authority: the person you’re attempting to influence still has the final say, so acknowledge that by saying something like, “I realize it’s your decision,” or “I know it’s your call.”

With this attention to both internal and external communication, you may feel more confident about managing up. Managing up may always a challenge but with time and practice, it will become easier.

Ha​ve you ever been in the uncomfortable situation of having to manage up? What was it like for you? We would love to hear from you. Drop us a line. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend.

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