How to up-lead
After my leadership seminars, someone always says
“This material is great. I can see how it will improve my life. I’m starting to implement it. But you know who could really use it? My boss!”
Most of my clients who have problems at work wish they could change their bosses, a process I call up-leading or up-managing. Come to think of it, our success developing up-leading skills seems a major reason people work with me.
It seems a big and common need. A few changes in beliefs and learning a few new skills overcomes most of the problems, but they can be hard to get to take root. Today I’ll write a few notes on how to do it. If you want more, please write to ask for more. I’m thinking about creating a seminar on it.
Non-solutions to boss problems
I’ll mention a major problem with the two most common ways of handling boss problems. The first is to accept and endure them. This “solution” obviously leaves you miserable. The second is to leave. This “solution” assumes the boss is the problem, or at least that changing bosses will solve it. While sometimes it will, it misses that you can solve the problem without changing bosses.
Switching bosses and jobs takes a lot of time and other resources, takes attention away from developing skills yourself, and doesn’t always lead to a problem-free new boss. You risk having a long resume filled with jobs you held for short terms.
Start with awareness
I nearly always start with awareness. The first thing I recognize when someone tells me they have a problem with their boss, whom they want to change, is that they have a problem. Maybe their boss does too, but they definitely do. I say “Your manager may have a problem or may not, I don’t know, but when you say you have a problem with them, you say you have a problem. You want to change something in your environment you don’t know how to change.” For all I know, their boss leads well. Even if their boss doesn’t, the boss doesn’t think he or she is a problem. Like everyone, the boss probably thinks he or she is doing great.
Also, since most people only think about leading through external incentives based on authority like controlling someone’s salary, promotions, bonuses, and so on, which they can’t control with their boss, they think they can’t lead their bosses. They don’t realize you can lead with other tools than external incentives, namely through internal emotions. To access other people’s emotions you have to understand them, which leads to compassion and empathy. When you understand another person’s emotions and motivations you can influence and lead them more effectively.
As it turns out, influencing people through their emotions is much more effective than through external incentives, at least in long-enough-term relationships. I think a main reason clients like working with me is that the skills they learn up-leading their bosses work with everyone, but they never thought to use them because they were busy using external incentives.
Next, improve yourself and your skills
The next step I advise in influencing someone else is to learn the relevant skills with yourself. You can understand and influence other people’s emotions better when you understand and influence your own better. Your own long-term changes didn’t come from external incentives.
Step 1: improve your life. Learn about your emotional system and how it works. Develop skills to recognize the emotions you feel. Learn how to change your emotions.
The value of improving your workplace
Even if nothing you could do could improve the situation with your boss enough to make it worth it and you have no alternative to leaving, you still benefit from improving your situation before you leave. I tell all my clients who want to leave their jobs I take a two-pronged approach to helping them leave. One prong is that I help them find a new jobs. The other prong is to improve their current situation until they can leave.
In nearly every client, they didn’t think they could improve their situation, they did, and the improved boss relationship improved their work situation and entire life more than they expected. In a few cases they found the situation so much improved they didn’t need to leave any more. The other cases saw vastly improved job searches. No longer looking in desperation, they didn’t feel compelled to look for just anything that would take them away. And they felt less pressure on time.
A few helpful beliefs
To change someone else without changing yourself, or at least being open to it, is very difficult. I recommend being open to being wrong. You may have contributed more to the problems you see in the relationship more than you thought.
Improving your social skills improves your relationships. Even if you think they have a problem, you can still improve the situation or even solve the problem completely.
Influencing someone you don’t understand doesn’t often work. I recommend starting with understanding them. If you ever asked in exasperation “Why would they do that?!?!” only implying “there’s no good reason for doing that,” you don’t understand them, meaning you’ll have a hard time leading them. Before leading them, try to understand them.
They aren’t trying to annoy you, at least not in their mind. If you feel annoyed, you might try to find out what are they trying to doÂ in their minds. If you don’t know, you have little chance of influencing them.
Trying to change people who haven’t asked for your help feels meddlesome and often self-righteous or judgmental. Do you think making someone feel that way will help you lead them? I recommend finding out if they want to change. If they don’t you’re trying to change someone who doesn’t want to change, a recipe for disaster. If you believe they will be glad you changed them even if they don’t know it, you’re walking a fine line. Again, I recommend starting with understanding. If you can get them to ask you for advice you’ve gotten far. One of the best ways to get people to ask you for advice is for them to see you make progress, which is why I suggested starting with yourself.
They may help you learn more about yourself and leadership than you ever thought you could. Read my post on replacing jerks with people who improve your life to see the value a challenging boss can bring to your life.Helpful skills
I posted recently on the two main skills I coach on up-leading.
- How to make someone feel understood: confirm and let them correct you
- Talk to a misbehaving boss like you talk to a misbehaving child
This post is relevant too.
My “How to Lead People So They Want You to Lead Them Again” seminar covers this area
As I said, I expect to create a new seminar specifically on up-leading your boss, but my existing seminar “How to Lead People So They Want You to Lead Them Again” covers a lot of it. It covers most of the beliefs and practices the skills too.
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