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HUMAN RESOURCES

Managing Up

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Relationships were once something we had; now they're something we work at. And as happens with all areas subject to improvement, a canon of self-help literature has sprouted in response to our longing for spouses who love us, offspring who respect us, and assorted people with whom we can make friends and influence.

A flourishing subset of this genre is "managing-up" books, get-ahead guides that teach employees to work their managers the way Jason Kidd works a basketball. A search for the word "boss" on Amazon.com turns up 77 selections including titles like How to Make Your Boss Work for You, Getting Your Boss's Number, and Jobmanship: How to Get Ahead by "Psyching Out" Your Boss and Co-Workers. By contrast, the search turned up only 50 books on how to be a good boss, which may explain why managing-up is so popular in the first place.

Much of the advice these books peddle is unobjectionable: communicate clearly, set high personal standards, solicit challenging tasks, avoid fomenting office coups, don't sleep with anyone who is also sleeping with the boss. Most emphasize that an employee's first duty is to make his superiors look good. But there's more subversive material as well. Some managing-up books treat bosses as exotic fauna to be studied, their behaviors logged and leveraged in a concerted program of domestication. Others recommend -- if not outright duplicity -- at least a little artfulness in truth-telling.

In the April 2003 Inc. article, "Who's Managing Whom," on page 44, Senior Editor Leigh Buchanan describes some of the resources your employees might be reading -- and what they might be learning from them. Here, Inc.com shares more resources uncovered by Buchanan as well as their surprising suggestions to employees.

Know What to Say: Form can be as important as timing in getting the boss to consent. For example, managing-up guides generally advise employees seeking advancement to ask not what their companies can do for them, but what they -- with extra pay and a better title--can do for their companies. Many offer scripts to use when requesting a raise or promotion. Speaking Up: What to Say to Your Boss and Everyone Else Who Gets on Your Case (Bob Adams Inc. 1993) includes long lists of phrases applicable on such occasions. Some of those phrases ("able to make decisions," "problem solver," "willing to take charge") are good. Others ("bored to death," "can't stand it" "or else") are not.

Flaunt Flaws: Getting ahead, the literature suggests, requires a fairly obvious combination of can-do performance and can't-wait-to-do attitude. How to Think Like a Boss and Get Ahead at Work (Management Strategies, 1998) offers some counterintuitive advice: embrace imperfection. "Sometimes, perfection acts like glue," says author Barry Eigen. "The better an employee is, the stickier the current job becomes. No one wants to replace an almost perfect employee, because, if it works, why fix it?" Eigen's message of course, is to take risks and demonstrate value in a higher-level job. But he's also leery of the Stepford effect: "The always-perfect employee scares bosses--not because they are threatening -- but because they don't seem real, and artificial people are hard to trust."

Know the Right Stuff: Virtually all managing-up books emphasize the need to master nuances of the boss's personality and the company's culture. Fewer extol the merits of studying the company itself, its industry, and the broader world in which it operates. One exception is Be a Kickass Assistant: How to Get From a Grunt Job to a Great Career (Warner Business, 2002). Heather Beckel, former executive assistant to George Stephanopolus, suggests that even the lowliest workers "read as many of the reports and memos that come into your office as possible and take the initiative to do research on subjects that you don't know anything about. Stay informed about the world outside your office too; read newspapers, stay up on pop culture, read the trade publications for your industry and talk to people." On a similar note, Alan Schonberg, author of 169 Ways to Score Points with Your Boss (McGraw-Hill Trade, 1998). recommends employees scour their company's annual report cover-to-cover, subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, and route relevant or intriguing news clippings to the boss.

Say Nothing: Readers of How To Be #1 With Your Boss (Marsh Creek Press, 1994), won't try anything sneaky on you. That's because they'll be too damn scared. Author Don Aslett is a practicing boss from the tough-bugger school who fumes that coffee breaks are not a "God-given right" and applies a fun-house theology to equate gossip with murder. Bosses like him, Aslett warns, have more sources of information than the Office of Homeland Security. They know who left the copier on. They can smell a slacker a mile away. Most important, they possess a barometric sensitivity to disloyalty or bad-mouthing. "Criticism shared with a third party always gets back to the boss, always," writes Aslett. And "don't think you're safe going home to do your criticizing. Airing your gripes at home can be even worse than doing so in the workplace."

Be a Pal: Although managing-up books disagree on the advisability of employee-boss friendships, the majority rule for keeping things pleasant and professional. One exception is Winning Office Politics (Prentice-Hall Press, 1990), which advises employees to get involved in their employer's social life by, for example, helping to repair or refinish a car, lending the boss a season pass to a team sport, or simply sending birthday and holiday cards. "An extreme form of this technique is to introduce your boss to a potential date," writes author Andrew DuBrin.

Simulate Mirth: Managing-up experts disagree on whether it's smart to laugh at the boss's (presumably unfunny) jokes. How To Be #1 With Your Boss condemns fake laughter as shameless politicking while Managing Your Boss: The Skills You Need to Succeed in the Business World (Barron's Education Series Inc., 2001) calls it an innocent social lubricant. The message for bosses: when you say something funny, pay attention to who laughs and who doesn't and don't trust any of them.

Last updated: Mar 18, 2003

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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