Managing up. How to manage difficult leaders.

Managing up. How to manage difficult leaders.
May 9, 2022 Linda Murray

As a coach, I hear a lot of stories from my clients. This is a recent comment that stood out. 

My leadership team seem very nice, however, I can see a lot of issues which good and strong leaders would not stand for, so it makes me wonder what lies behind the smile.”

Have you ever experienced this? I know I have. I remember feeling the same way. My leaders were lovely people, kind and popular, and full of energy and enthusiasm. We got along very well but somehow our team didn’t seem to achieve the results we anticipated.

We felt uncomfortable bringing this up with our leaders because we didn’t want to upset them. That says a lot about the ‘friendship’ and even more about their ability to lead.

Managing up is difficult but sometimes you need to take control. Whether your leaders are too friendly, too dominating, or even indecisive, if you’re not getting the leadership you need to achieve targets, you need to step up and ‘lead from below.’

What can you do to manage a difficult leader? These strategies have proven effective for my clients.

Consider their motivations

    • What’s their ‘why’? 
    • What goals, ambitions or targets are they aiming for? 

This will help you define what they see as important and give you clues about what they want from you.

Consider their strengths and weaknesses.  

This lets you adapt your style to build on their strengths and reduce the impact of their weaknesses. You’ll understand what will make them panic and what they’ll love, so you can present your information to get the result you want. For example, if they are visionaries, feeding them lots of data will be a conversation killer. Remember they are human, too. They will build on their strengths, and you can learn from them. 

Be the solution. 

It’s unlikely your manager is being difficult on purpose but neither do they want to hear you talking about problems all the time. If there’s a problem, offer a potential solution. 

Establish clear expectations so you both know where you stand. 

Set tasks and timeframes and get clarity on what your leader defines as successful completion. The more you can see from the leader’s perspective, the more likely you are to manage the situation.

Stand up for yourself

If you find your manager to be unreasonable, it’s hard not to reply in anger. Stand up for yourself by explaining your process and why you’ve made the decisions you’ve made. Ask for advice on what you could have done differently. By asking questions you deflect the criticism and turn the conversation towards a more constructive event. 

You’re probably wondering why you’d bother managing up. It’s all part of being a leader yourself. There’s a lot you can learn by studying your difficult leader and observing the impact on the team. It’s an opportunity to practice leadership strategies and build your skillset as you build your career. 

Remember: leadership is all about relationships, the use of emotional intelligence, and the practice of honest communication. Get that right and your role will be much easier to deal with now and in your future leadership career.

Athena Leadership Academy workshops teach the skills you and your team need in situations like this – courageous conversations, strategic leadership and more. They will help you become more emotionally intelligent, self-aware, and resilient. Get in touch to discuss program options. 


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