10 Jul. 2015 | Comments (0)
Effective communication takes a deft touch when you’re managing up. If your attempts to persuade are too obvious, they may not succeed. Yet you need to be deliberate in your approach.
As you engage with your boss in everyday activities, try to identify the messages behind her speech and behavior. The words and deeds matter, of course, but the values that underlie them often mean more. Listening with a keen ear and observing with a sharp eye can make all the difference in understanding, not just labeling, your manager’s communication style.
Consider the statement “My door is always open,” which many bosses make to their direct reports. That seemingly transparent sentence can have a variety of meanings. Here are three examples:
When she says, “My door is always open,” Rebecca means it literally. To foster honesty and camaraderie, she wants people to feel free to approach her in person at any time. It invigorates her when a direct report has an idea and spontaneously pops into her office to share it. When a problem arises, she wants to hear about it immediately, because it reassures her that everyone is working as a team. She bristles when people who come in to speak to her close the door behind them. Indeed, she worries that colleagues will see a shut door as evidence of hypocrisy. If Rebecca must talk with someone in complete privacy, she reserves a meeting room.
Raul’s open-door policy is one that he expects people to observe in spirit, not in absolute terms. The door to his office is open 90% of the time, but when a deadline is imminent, he shuts it so he can concentrate, especially if he is writing. He wants people to see him as easy to approach and “always available,” but he views e-mail and team meetings as legitimate ways for people to reach him. If someone considered him a hypocrite for shutting his door once in a while, Raul would think that the person lacked common sense.
Janice works in a cubicle with low walls, as do all of her direct reports, so she doesn’t even have a door. To her, an “open door” is merely a metaphor for how colleagues work together. She doesn’t want people to fear making mistakes, even in front of her. But she also places a high premium on giving folks the mental space to do their work quietly and to consider proposals deliberately before acting on them. She wants her direct reports to share novel ideas but expects them to submit those in writing before asking other people to react. To Janice, an open door does not mean an “instant response,” a phrase that she often uses when describing slipshod work.
As varied as these “open door” interpretations are, at least Rebecca, Raul, and Janice give their employees something to go on. Some managers don’t even have an explicit policy about how—and how often—to communicate with them.
Whatever your manager’s preferred style of interaction, you’ll probably need to do a little investigating to figure it out. Start by asking yourself these questions:
- Is my manager a listener or a reader? Listeners want to hear information first and read about it later. Readers prefer to see a written report before discussing it with you.
- Does she prefer detailed facts and figures or just an overview? If she thrives on details, focus primarily on accuracy and completeness; if she prefers an overview, emphasize the clarity and crispness of the main idea.
- How often does she want to receive information? Your manager may always want to receive updates at specified junctures or she may have different thresholds for each project, such as daily reporting on critical endeavors and periodic updates on secondary initiatives.
Every exchange of information with your manager has implications for productivity. These tips will help you be more efficient:
- When discussing deadlines, use specific language. Pinpoint a certain date—even a specific hour, if appropriate. Avoid vague commitments like “sometime next week,” “ASAP,” or “as soon as we can get to it.”
- Be honest about what you can and cannot handle. When you commit to an assignment, clearly identify what resources you need to get the job done.
- Explicitly identify your objectives each time you communicate with your manager.
- Ask questions to clarify what you don’t understand. Inquire about opportunities for follow-up in case you think of other questions later.
This post is adapted from the Harvard Business Review Press book Managing Up (20-Minute Manager Series).
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 07/02/2015.
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