One of the questions I’m often asked is: “How do I get taken seriously at work?” And over my career I have asked myself that question as well.

One way to build credibility in the workplace was explained by Dr Lynda Bourne at a presentation she gave at the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin.

Let’s talk about managing up.

Dublin Convention Centre
Dublin Convention Center

What it means to manage upwards

Project managers aren’t the ones in charge. We work for the people at the top of the tree: project sponsors and senior executives.

Managing upwards means managing sponsors and maintaining organizational commitment. It’s more accurate to think of it as advising upwards and it is one of the skills that Bourne says project managers often lack.

She should know; she’s the author/editor of Advising Upwards: A Framework for Engaging and Advising Senior Management Stakeholders, which is published by the reputable management publishing house Routledge under the Gower brand. She’s also written other books on stakeholder engagement, and she’s well-known as a project management expert.

Bourne explained that no single stakeholder type should be considered as being more important than the others. Customers are not more important than technical staff. Vendors are not more important than employees.

The high priority stakeholders are the ones who are most important right now.

You’ll have to work out who is the highest priority stakeholder for you, at the moment. Teamwork is important on a project , not only because it gives you a rounded view of who is a critical stakeholder, but also because with many views you can adequately understand and respond to stakeholder needs.

“The only way to engage senior stakeholders so they help you when you need them is to start early and build credibility.”

Lynda Bourne

Managing up is something people have been talking about for a long time, and it was brought to the attention of a lot of people back in 2005 with the now-classic HBR article on the topic.

Here are the 3 best tips for managing up with your boss that I took away from her presentation.

1. Provide the right information

“The only way to build those relationships is communication,” Bourne said. “There is absolutely nothing else.”

Managers are busy people. They do not like surprises. They need information but it must be specific to their needs and help them do their job and help them make their decisions.

Providing relevant information on a proactive basis is one way to build credibility, and it helps them look credible to their bosses too. “Steer your ship along and provide them with the information they need to look good,” Bourne said.

Work on your business acumen so you better understand what is important to them and how your project work fits into the organization overall. That’s a surefire way to build a better working relationship with your manager.

2. Be helpful

Providing information is good, but think through what you are giving them and why.

“The concept of ‘I’ll just do a report’ will not persuade people,” Bourne said.

Communication must be:

  • Purposeful: why are you giving this report? Is it to change an attitude, to get a decision or something else?
  • Targeted: specific to the stakeholder.
  • Appropriate in form and content: does the exec want a diagram? A spreadsheet? Have you even asked them?
  • Monitored for effectiveness: check in with how the attitude-changing is going. Has the communication had any impact? If not, change it.

Make sure your communication style matches their preferred way of receiving information.

Be the person who is helpful. Recognize that your project is only one of a hundred and that you have to help them manage their time as well.

This helps you build up what Bourne calls ‘credibility points’ for when things go wrong.

However, you don’t want to end up confusing ‘being helpful’ with ‘being a dogsbody’. No manager should expect their team members to blindly follow, and that’s where we get to the next point.

3. Be intelligently disobedient

Managers are normal people. They might not be able to have all the answers because they may still be learning their job. Be sympathetic and realize they have jobs to do too.

“You do not always have to follow the rules,” Bourne said.  “If your boss is requesting that you do something that you know is not the best thing for the boss, the organization, the team and yourself, then you must speak up.”

Bourne talked about the concept of intelligent disobedience. Intelligent disobedience is what they teach guide dogs. It helps them know when to ignore the request of the blind person when crossing the road, for example, is not safe.

In the workplace it translates to having the confidence to challenge decisions. Being able to say no to your manager helps you build credibility.

Extra tips for advising up

Bourne gave some extra expert tips for managing up:

  • Support the transition to the C-suite: they might be new in post and need extra (subtle) support to ensure they function effectively in their new job
  • Recognize that it takes a while for people to change their mindsets from being a ‘doer’ to a ‘leader’
  • Know that they need to advise up too, to the CEO and beyond
  • Remove the idea that risk is bad news
  • Build a sponsor culture from above and below
  • Understand their drivers so you can better manage expectations
  • Work to build credibility and trust.

“Never assume that you know enough about your stakeholders as their views will change,” Bourne said. “You have to constantly review and maintain those relationships. Do not assume that you have ever done enough to engage them.”

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