Crucial Lessons on Managing Up: How To Work With Your Boss | Influence | Assertive Communication

Published on Jul 4, 2022

20 min read

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What are some of the biggest challenges that people encounter in managing up? How should people speak to their manager? How to use influence. What is assertive communication? And how to ask for what you want. Plus important advice for those raised not to disagree with authority. You will leave with resources to develop the skill of managing up.

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[00:00] Vidal: Good morning. uh, good morning. I have with me today, Divya Ramachandran. Divya was a former VP Product and now is a coach. She specializes in executive and leadership coaching. So welcome to ManagersClub, Divya.

[00:14] Divya: Thanks so much for having me here Vidal.

[00:16] Vidal: Divya tell us a little bit about your background and how did you end up as a coach?

[00:21] Divya: Yeah, sure. So I have a background in engineering and computer science and ended up working at multiple startups in the Bay Area, in user experience and product. And it was when I was actually a VP of Product at a um, a AI startup that I worked with an executive coach myself.

And it really changed the way I thought about leadership, about management. And I just learned so much about myself through that process. When I ended up taking a break after that role, one thing led to another, and I found myself in a leadership coaching training. And from that first day on, it was very clear that this was the kind of impact I wanted to have in the tech world moving forward.

And so now I am a leadership coach and executive coach. I work with leaders of all kinds, helping helping them really find a way to act on purpose at work rather than under pressure all the time.

[01:08] Vidal: That’s awesome. I love how you’re trying to help leaders, by coaching them that has, you can have a lot of impact. And what we talked about earlier, we’re gonna talk about managing up. This is such a great topic. And it would just start with. What exactly is meant by managing up. And why is it important?

What is managing up? And why is it important?

[01:28] Divya: Yeah, such a great question. I love this topic as well. So managing up, when we think about managing or managing a team, think the two most essential skills we wanna think about is setting expectations of our team and holding our team accountable to those expectations. And it’s not really that different when we’re managing up, we still wanna be able to set expectations and hold our peers, our managers, our leaders, accountable to those expectations we’ve aligned on. However we know we no longer have authority in our favor, so we have to rely on other kinds of influence. So I really think about this as, how do we influence people who are our peers, who are our managers, who are our leaders in such a way that we can align on and change expectations as needed and hold one another accountable to creating the outcomes that we’re looking for.

[02:16] Vidal: All right. Now some people also interested in managing up for performance reasons, right? Like they, you know, they wanna get promoted. They wanna get a good performance review. Is it important for that too?

[02:27] Divya: Yes, absolutely. So again, as long as you’re aligned on the expectations of what you need to be doing to achieve that promotion and you have transparent communication around it, and you have enough trust between yourself and your manager in order to get that, make that happen, then that’s all you need, because then you’re simply, it’s, you’re simply observing, Hey, these are the expectations that we set together.

This is how I’ve performed. This is how you see it. That I’ve performed. The next step is just it’s here. There’s nothing to do, but move up to that next promotion. But when we’re not aligned on that expectations, when we don’t know quite what our manager is expecting us to do, or they have some expectations that they have not made clear to us.

That’s when we are always running into these issues of am I gonna get promoted? I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. Do I have to do I have to stand up for myself? You wanna be able to start that whole conversation early by simply having a very transparent way of having that communication and knowing what those expectations are.

[03:23] Vidal: Allright. Let’s move on to since you coach people, what are some of the biggest challenges that people encounter in managing up?

What are some of the biggest challenges that people encounter in managing up?

[03:32] Divya: Yeah, that’s a great question. I would say one of the biggest challenges is that people simply get in their own way. They believe that because they don’t have the authority or a title or seniority that’s a barrier and that’s a barrier to influencing in any ways what, and that they cannot overcome it.

So you’re the manager, you’re the boss. I completely feel differently about this, but I can’t say anything because my hands are tied. And so just believing that there is no other way is actually the first big barrier. The second is feeling a sense of judgment or resistance toward any other opinion.

So your manager’s giving you feedback and you don’t feel open to it at all. You don’t have the ability to take that for what it is. Take it constructively because there’s just so much judgment around what my way is the right way and your way is the wrong way. That’s another piece that sometimes gets in the way.

And I would say the last one is when we are trying to actually influence or ask for what we want to our manager, that we view any kind of resistance or a no, or a soft no or anything other than a, yes, really as a brick wall that that’s it. And that’s not that’s, that’s it. And we have to give up there rather than seeing that, that resistance is actually just a step along the. And there is a way for us to continue to move forward.

[04:54] Vidal: Can we dig into these as these are good challenges? You’re a coach. Could you give me some specific examples? Do you have any scenarios, like for example, this happened to a client and this is what they ended up doing or you recommended?

[05:08] Divya: Yeah. Yeah. So I would say one of a challenge that comes up very often is this idea this, the manager who tends to get in the weeds too much. So every one on one, I’m trying to talk about this one thing I’m trying to be strategic and they find this one point and they dive in there and they just won’t let go.

And they’re asking me so many questions and what’s coming out the way they’re seeing that whole scenario is my manager just doesn’t trust me. There’s no trust. They’re asking me all those questions because they don’t trust me. And so of course this is gonna create so much tension and so much stress around this whole situation, because what you believe, not only is that it worst case best case, right?

They don’t you think if they don’t trust you, when you wanna fight worst case is that you think they don’t trust you and therefore you stop trusting yourself. You believe you’re not actually good enough because of what you’re hearing. So there’s no win here. As long as you don’t believe that there is trust and.

That is the kind of the way in which you’re interpreting the situation. Yeah. Then you’re stuck.

[06:09] Vidal: Trust is so important. So how do you, what do you do in that situation? try to fix that?

[06:14] Divya: Yeah. So the first thing that we wanna do there is really just examine the situation and say what is the evidence that we have here?

What are we actually playing with? And how much of this is your own interpretation? Right. So how true is it that your manager doesn’t trust you? How do we know that for a fact? So they’re asking, so the evidence that they’re bringing to the situation is they keep asking me all these questions they’re getting in the weeds.

And so we start by saying what else could it mean? What are the other possible reasons that they’re asking and getting into the weeds? Often we come to this possibility that they just like being in the weeds and they miss it. They get excited about problem solving. They’re actually just totally excited about this particular problem and they wanna understand it a little bit more.

There is a possibility that’s really just what’s going on and whether we know for sure that it’s because they don’t trust you or it’s because they’re just excited about this possibility, doesn’t actually matter as much as once we open up our minds to another perspective, we don’t feel as closed. We don’t feel as resistant to the whole situation. And that allows us then to take a different approach.

[07:20] Vidal: I see. Okay. Yeah, totally. I was talking with someone a coach that I know, and it’s there’s the things that happen. And then there’s your whole interpretation about them. So you’re saying like, maybe you have a negative interpretation and really it’s not that way. Is there any way you can test if your interpretation is correct?

[07:37] Divya: Yeah. So yeah, that’s a great question. So I wanna give you a little bit background here to explain where this is coming from.

That’s exactly right. Is when we actually are perceiving the situation, they don’t trust me, they don’t believe I’m good enough, or I don’t believe I’m good enough what that’s actually triggering. See my coaching background is actually based on this framework called the Energy Leadership Framework. This is developed by Bruce Schneider at the Institute for professional excellence in coaching.

Okay. And in energy leadership, what we’re basically looking at is our biological or physiological response to a stressful situation. So in that moment, when we’re feeling like they don’t trust us, or we’re not good enough, essentially what that’s triggering in our body is a number of catabolic hormones to be released like adrenaline and cortisol.

And we’re essentially triggering our fight or flight. We’re perceiving our body is in stress or our ideas or our mind is under stress. And so we are going to either fight this or flee from. And so fleeing from it essentially means just stepping back and saying my hands are tied.

I can’t do anything about this. Allowing yourself to become the victim. Or of course fighting is basically getting in a big argument with your boss and just breaking down more trust right now, when we are able to recognize that, Hey, I’m in this fight or flight. But I have another mode. The other mode is this is when we use anabolic hormones.

Our anabolic hormones are released. We can’t look at a situation through anabolic hormones, unless we perceive that our body is not under stress. So simply by looking at that situation and saying, maybe there’s another interpretation here. Maybe I’m not unsafe. Maybe there is trust. When we’re able to look at a situation like that and say, maybe this is just about them wanting to geek out on the details and that’s it right.

As soon as we’ve got that in mind. Now we are open to testing and we test through, and this is the next piece, which is curiosity. We’ve let go of our judgment of their actions and of their response. And we’ve, we’re bringing in a curious conversation here and just asking. Just asking them, Hey, I noticed that you’re asking all of these questions.

I notice that in our meetings, we tend to go into the details. Okay. I would love to understand more what this is about. And so just being able to start asking some more questions is what allows us to do that. That’s essentially how we gather that evidence.

[09:45] Vidal: I think that’s great. So basically kinda, yeah. Stepping back. So then you can ask the question it’s in a calm way. Not assuming anything. When people meet with their managers. Okay. And hopefully, people are meeting with their managers regularly, like in one on ones. I didn’t get to ask you this before, but do you have any advice for people on how to manage up or speak to their manager?

How should people speak to their manager?

[10:08] Divya: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I would say that this is maybe the third piece of what it is that you wanna be able to bring to that conversation is you wanna be in the driver’s seat in those one on ones, especially if you need to. And so this is where it comes to this idea of, I think part, one of the most essential skills for managing up is to be able to communicate your needs, ask for what you want.

And some people find this extremely hard. In fact, most people find this extremely hard for so many different reasons. And when you’re asking your manager, it’s got, you’ve got all this additional baggage around the fact that they’re your boss and they’re responsible for your job and all of that.

women having a conversation

Photo by mentatdgt on Pexels.com

And assertive communication is a really important skill. And so if you look at a spectrum from passive to aggressive communication, those are on the two ends of a situation.

In aggressive communication, maybe you’ve seen this in your workplace once in a while. The goal of aggressive communication is basically to get what you want, no matter what, right? To fight tooth and nail to get what you want and to entirely make sure that the other person’s opinion or idea is. Loses, it’s I win you lose. That is what you want out of the situation. And so your goal is simply to win the argument or win this conversation in whatever way possible.

On the other end of the spectrum is passive communication where essentially your goal is to avoid conflict at all costs. And so what you do is you basically listen, you find a way to just tolerate whatever it is the situation is. Maybe sometimes you rationalize it to yourself or maybe sometimes you just allow yourself to feel victim to this whole thing. And that’s the other end of it. But your goal is maintain the peace in whatever way possible. Neither of these are truly getting you what you want. Of course, in passive communication, you’re absolutely not getting what you want in aggressive communication you might get what you want, but you’ve broken down trust and you’ve created, you’ve opened up a whole bunch of different problems.

[11:52] Vidal: Divya, so I understand now about passive and aggressive communication. I think that’s a great distinction you made. Could you speak a little bit more about assertive communication and how to do that correctly?

What is Assertive Communication?

[12:07] Divya: Yes, absolutely. So what is assertive communication?

Our goal with assertive communication is actually to increase mutual understanding on both sides. And yes, we want to win and we often win in this, but only due to more in more increased understanding mutually. And so how do we actually do this? The first step is really to start recognizing when we are driven by fear, when we’re driven by those catabolic hormones and to have, and develop that awareness.

So if you’re feeling worked up about the situation, nervous or angry about asking for what you need or having to deal with this conflict, To notice it and do whatever you need to allow that emotion to pass so that you can be in a more calm place. Now, how do you do this? Going back to what we talked about earlier, really challenging some of those thoughts that you have and coming up with some alternatives so that you find yourself in a more calm place.

So take the time to do that, that’s number one. The second piece is then to start getting clarity on what it is that you truly want and what it is that you’re trying to ask for. And we talked a little bit about this, but really spending some time getting that clarity is really helpful. So it’s gonna be really helpful there to be able to get the clarity that you want about what is your actual ask and know what that is. And so go in with that, right? The third piece of it is to be able to find a way to foster the curiosity that we talked about. So ask yourself some questions. Journaling is a great way to be able to process some of this, or maybe you have a trusted mentor or a friend that you can talk about this with, or a coach that you can talk about this with.

To be able to develop more curiosity around what do they want, what would be a win for them? Because the goal of it in an assertive con communication with assertive communication is not just to win, but to find a win-win. So what is it that they’re looking for in the example that we talked about, maybe they really just want to be able to geek out on those details once in a while, and have a brainstorming session with you.

And there’s some vulnerability there around for them on their side around just not being able to do that more. And so try to find a way to be able to understand that a little better and to say how could this potentially win? Maybe we set aside some other times just for brainstorming or we go into the weeds and I decide to go in there in an open-minded way.

And that’s okay. Or maybe we have a document that we both write on so we can talk about the weeds, but when we’re in the one-on-one I can drive. But try to come up with different ideas in your mind about getting curious, what is it that they truly. They want. So what is it that I want? What is it that they want?

And then that leads then to our ability to actually have that conversation. And I actually have a framework that I’ve borrowed from Dr. Marsha Lenahan called the dear man framework, which is really about assertive of communication or asking for what it is that you want in any kind of a relationship where the acronym, dear man essentially walks you through all of the steps to truly Construct a conversation that is under it’s empathetic and it’s assertive.

And that’s how you can script out exactly how you’re gonna have that conversation in the end.

[15:11] Vidal: It’s so interesting. You mentioned DEAR man, cuz yeah, I’ve heard of this. I yeah, I got it from a therapist I was talking to one day, so that’s a very that’s a well-known framework and it’s very good.

Yeah. It’s like a, it is a script. Alright. Yeah, it’s very effective. I’ll include some links to some of these methodologies or stuff you’ve talked about. I think there if people wanna geek out on it, like I’m a total. I like geeking out on the whole psychology and human behavior stuff, so thank you.

[15:33] Divya: That’s great. Yeah, absolutely.

[15:34] Vidal: Could you talk a little bit about, asking for what you want so I think some people are hesitant to come to their managers and ask for things because they’re like, Hey, I’m supposed to be able to figure it out. I’m supposed to be able to get it done. Like I just can’t show up and say, help, I need a bunch of stuff or they only do it in an emergency. So could you talk a little bit more, about what exactly mean by asking for what you want?

Asking for What You Want

[15:56] Divya: Yeah. Yeah. So that’s an interesting point that you bring up there, right? Is like I’m supposed to be able to figure this out on my own. That is probably one of the most limiting beliefs that anyone can hold, right? Like where does that belief come from? That you’re supposed to figure this out on your own. Your manager is there to support you and to hold your hand through this in whatever way needed. And it’s, the that’s coming from this place of, again, it’s this fear that if I don’t if they believe that I’m, not capable of this, I’m gonna lose my job.

man people coffee desk

Photo by Henri Mathieu-Saint-Laurent on Pexels.com

And so again, having that awareness of like I’m being driven by fear here, and what I actually need is support is really important. So you need to start by recognizing I’ve got a lot of fear here. That’s not, it’s not helping me in any way. It’s essentially making me stuck. And my manager needs me to be unstuck every bit, as much as I need to be unstuck. And my manager here is a resource for me to be able to help me get unstuck.

[16:51] Vidal: That’s a really interesting way of reframing that, right? That, that’s coming from a fear that I really should know what to do without their help. And if I don’t somehow I’m failing. That’s really interesting. And I really like what you said previously about the aggressive and passive communication too.

It’s really that’s really a great point. I see that those are the two extremes and they have problems. Let me ask you another thing. So in certain cultures, in certain places where people are brought up around the world, they’re basically taught don’t challenge authority, don’t challenge your parents, don’t challenge your boss, be obedient and do whatever they say so what advice would you give to people who grew up in that kind of cultural environment for where this would be extremely uncomfortable?

Advice for Those Raised Not to Disagree with Authority

[17:35] Divya: Yeah, that’s a really great question. And I appreciate you just bringing up the idea that some of this runs deep, we’re brought up that way. We truly believe, maybe there are beliefs that are limiting us in some way, but we truly believe it.

And we don’t have necessarily the tools or even we don’t feel like we’re really, we have any kind of option there in that situation. I would start by really just trying to explore what is the consequence like? What is the cost right of believing this? There are people maybe for whom this is fine.

There’s no big cost because you go in there, you do what your boss says. You enjoy the peace, that you’re able to maintain. And then you can go home and just live your life and separate your work from your life. And that’s fine, right? There is no real cost here. In fact, it’s all benefit because this is what helps you keep your job and feed your family right.

On the other hand, it could be that experience of just going in there and doing what your boss says is actually really stressful for you because you believe that things should be done in a different way, or you believe you’re being treated unfairly, or you truly believe that you deserve that promotion. And you want that promotion because you believe you can add more value to the company by growing into that role.

And so if you’re recognizing by just complying to whatever your boss says, that’s creating a ton of stress and tension for you. That’s when you that’s when you do need other tools because simply complying and be passive communication is not helping you. And in fact, it’s impairing a lot of it. It’s impairing your life, right? It’s it’s the cost is too high. And so yes, it’s hard and it’s really hard work, but it can be done.

[19:06] Vidal: Okay. Yeah, I think that’s the challenge. A lot of people have, cuz they’re just, it’s not comfortable and that’s the way they were brought up.

Like I said so on that topic of developing the skill, right? Are there any resources, books, classes anything people can do to develop the skill of managing up?

Resources, books, classes anything people can use to develop the skill of managing up

[19:23] Divya: Yeah. So that’s a great question. And I would say, we’ve talked about a lot of different things here, and one is really just about building more awareness.

Around your own thoughts. And in fact, I would say that’s probably one of the tools that your listeners, everyone, including me, we can continue to, we can start practicing now and continue to do that for the rest of our lives is really just noticing our thoughts when they come up and not getting totally consumed by them, noticing that this is simply a thought and I can challenge it with another.

And so there’s a lot of different resources that you can look at around this. I absolutely love any book by Brene Brown and the way in which she just helps us understand the way in which we think. And then the the emotions that, that come as a result of that. And just having that awareness, developing that awareness around it is really, I think as a basis, For all of this work, very helpful.

So Daring Greatly, Dare to Lead or her books that are specifically focused on, on leadership. So I would start there. I think there’s work the resources around crucial conversations, the books, the courses are out there that are possible working with if working with a coach is an option.

To really dig deep on some of this stuff like you’re mentioning here is fantastic. But if that’s not accessible to you looking around and just looking at some folks in your vicinity of who do you see around you, who you think does this well, who seem to be able to ask for what they want without holding back and trying to see if you can work with them.

Talk to them, get some kind of mentorship from them could be really be. I also have recently developed a course called mastering management, where I’m really trying to take some of these concepts and turn them into very concrete tools.

[20:57] Vidal: Okay. Those books are really good. Yeah. I’ve read some of them. Divya you’ve been like really generous with your time, and it’s really great to have you come on and speak about this important topic.

If people wanted to, connect with you later, and ask you questions, what would be the best way, to reach you?

[21:13] Divya: Yeah, fantastic. I’ve really appreciated being here as well and would love to connect with people who are out there listening. My email is coach@divyalalitha.com. I’m gonna spell that to you. D I V Y A L A L I T H A .com. So coach@divyalalitha.com. I’d love to hear from you by email. I’m also my websites at it’s divyalalitha.com. So you can find that as well. And with more information about that as well.

[21:39] Vidal: All right. Great. I’ll put links to those. Again. Fantastic. Thank you so much. It’s great to talk with you.

[21:46] Divya: Wonderful. Thanks so much as well for having me.

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