I tried explaining to a team member today that I need him to manage me, following this theme of “managing up.” I need him to come to me when I’m not getting back to him, when I’m threatening his deadlines, when he’s not hearing from me. But I just felt like I was essentially saying, I’m not on top of your stuff 24/7 and sometimes forget what everyone needs from me.
Could I do a better job of tracking that? Maybe? But I’ve always needed to do that with other managers of my own. Am I expecting the wrong thing here?
Andy: No way. Asking for help to keep track of the work is a way to make sure it gets done.
Emma: I agree! I don’t think it’s wrong at all to expect follow-ups from your team when something has slipped through the cracks. What I love most about this question, though, is that there’s not a single clear-cut answer. It’s one thing to ask your boss to respond to an email that’s been languishing in their inbox for three days. It’s another to have to ask again after a week, and again after two.
Andy: Ooo that’s interesting — the flip from managing up by confidently asking for what you need to just becoming your boss’s task manager.
Emma: Exactly. I had a manager about a year ago who asked to review my work before I handed it off. No problem — except he never actually found time to review it. I’d email him the work, wait a couple days, follow up. No response. A week later in my 1-on-1, he’d say, “Oh yeah, I really need to take a look at that work! Can you email it to me again?” I’d send it off and we were back to square one.
Andy: Oh brother.
Emma: I know! The work never got reviewed. I would eventually hit the drop-dead deadline and hand it off without his feedback. This is a pretty extreme example. I’d never experienced anything like it before, but most of my co-workers thought it was normal to have to corner their managers in the hallway after a meeting and force them to follow through.
If that’s the kind of accountability you’re hoping for, I do think you should recalibrate your expectations. Remember: your reports don’t actually have the power to hold you accountable. At most, they can act as pesky reminders — little human pop-up notifications. And after a while, that’s pretty humiliating.
Andy: If something is very important, there needs to be a system in place to make sure it happens. For me, this may mean I block off one afternoon a week to do the deep work that a project requires. It may mean that I logout of Slack until 10am, or that I don’t check my email until I have completed the one thing I’ve left on my desk. Only you know what your role can accommodate.
Emma: I’d also encourage you to really examine your team’s processes, and everything that’s on your plate. Do you have time dedicated to do what you say you’ll do? Are you trying to do too much? Can someone — maybe a project manager or an assistant — help keep your schedule on track?
Andy: That said, I’m not sure this is what’s happening here. I get the sense you want permission to not be superhuman and remember every deadline, deliver everything everyone wants without needing to be asked. Permission granted!
Asking for help doesn’t mean you’ll stop trying to remember, and it doesn’t make your follow-through count less. I used to think that the only way to get something off the top shelf in my kitchen was to precariously teeter on a stool. That’s not true. I can ask a taller person to reach up and get it. And they can do it with such ease and without much thought — my own gigantic efforts did not make the task more meaningful.
Emma: Coaching your team to ask for what they need is empowering. If you’re getting blank stares, keep doing it. I’ve often reminded my reports: “I don’t want to block you. My job is to literally do the exact opposite of that. I should be removing obstacles. So, if I’m not getting back to you, if I’m threatening your deadline… Heck! If I’m threatening to threaten your deadline, please tell me!”
Andy: Then, give them concrete ways to do that: “Unabashedly re-email me twice a day. Set a meeting on my calendar. Talk to me in open office hours. Put a piece of paper on my desk that tells me how you’ll proceed if you don’t hear back.”
That list of options is really key, especially for reports with whom the concept of managing up is still a little…fuzzy. You probably know how you want your team to ask you for something: when is too soon, when is too late, via Slack in the morning versus by email at the end of the day.
Emma: At the very least, you know what you don’t want. You can share those things. Make it really easy!
Andy: I also tell my team that I won’t be irritated or mad at them for these “interruptions.” I’ll be impressed! I’ll be inspired! They’re getting the job done, sometimes in spite of me.