The date was September 13th, 1983 and Jim Baker was not happy with his boss. There had been an internal disagreement between senior leadership on an important project earlier that week and he had just been notified by one of this top lieutenants that his boss had authorized an internal investigation of the entire senior leadership team. Baker has previously understood that only his department could authorize such investigations and he was further upset knowing that he too would be a subject of the investigation. As he stewed angrily on his way to a lunch meeting that day, he quickly asked for his driver to turn the car around so that he could immediately confront his boss. As the made his way toward his boss’ private dining room he knew that a direct confrontation could potentially cost him his job. Moments later James Baker, White House Chief of Staff, interrupted President Ronald Reagan’s private lunch with the Vice President and Secretary of Defense to tell him how he felt about the investigation.
At some point we all disagree with our boss. Whether it is practical matter of how to interpret recent market data or a serious disagreement over personnel or strategic direction – the fact is we won’t always agree with our supervisor. In my first post we discussed how you can begin to take an active role in forming a better relationship with your boss and why this ability to manage up has become a critical leadership competency. In this segment, let’s discuss some of the toughest situations that may test the limits of your ability to manage up and how you can navigate these critical moments with poise and forge a positive outcome for you, your boss, and your organization.
Disagreeing with your Boss – In our previous example, James Baker decided that the matter at hand was serious enough to provoke a direct confrontation and he was willing to lose his job if necessary. While his boldness may be admirable, the reality is that this all-in, high stakes approach is highly unpredictable and should only be reserved for the most extreme situations. For more commonplace disagreements keep the following in mind:
- What is your trust level with your current boss? First, understand that your credibility and judgment are very much on-the-line with the person who has the most power to directly influence your career. That shouldn’t make you timid, but you need to go in with eyes wide open. Make sure you have your facts straight and have built up a solid reputation before you decide to challenge your boss and go against their stated direction. Realize that a serious disagreement with your boss will look and feel very different if you all have a long history of working together successfully. If you have six months on the job you will need to tread lightly.
- Disagree Respectfully & Constructively. The fact is that most senior leaders, by virtue of their position, become somewhat isolated over time and can easily become disconnected from the daily reality that is playing out on the front lines of their organizations. For this reason, most credible leaders place a high value on team members who are willing to challenge appropriately and provide an alternative perspective. However, this should never be done with selfish motives. Effective managing up means helping your boss, the organization and yourself. If you have a disagreement with your boss, present it in private if possible and make sure you disagree in a constructive manner offering potential alternatives solutions and not just leveling criticism or dropping a problem in their lap.
Delivering Bad News – The key thing is to remember that all bosses hate to be surprised with bad news. Unless your boss happens to be the President of the United States, remember that they also have a boss to report to. Being surprised with negative news makes them look out-of-touch or worse – incompetent. Fortunately, this problem can be easily solved simply by keeping in regular communication with your boss. If they are aware of the daily struggles you are having then they will not be surprised if you encounter an occasional set-back.
The unfortunate tendency of many people is to try and either – minimize bad news on the front end (hoping it may get better) – or to not report anything until a small problem has metastasized into a full-blown emergency. Whether it is directly your fault or you are just the messenger, it is always better to bite-the-bullet upfront and deliver bad news openly, honestly, as soon as you know there is an issue. Make sure to own any personal mistakes and do not offer excuses of any kind. Although it may not feel like it, there is a certain nobility in standing upright and taking responsibility that your boss will respect.
By virtue of their position your boss deserves respect and a certain degree of deference but the ability to disagree appropriately and influence your boss effectively is a skill set that must be honed. There conversations can be tough but no boss has all the right answers. They need your feedback and unvarnished opinion to keep them from going down the wrong path and if done appropriately that courage is normally recognized and rewarded.
Back in the fall of 1983, James Baker’s “all-in” approach was effective in the short-term. President Reagan backed off the internal investigation and Baker’s authority seemed to be vindicated. However, the dispute created a poisonous internal rift within the senior leadership team that eventually led to Baker being passed over for the National Security Advisor position in the second administration. It was a position that Baker was well-qualified for but his aggressive style had alienated many of his peers and a less qualified, compromise candidate was chosen. As history will note, this less-qualified candidate would soon preside over the Iran Contra affair leaving a serious stain on President Reagan’s legacy.
Managing up always involves risk and how you approach it often matters just as much as what you decide to do. Make sure you are acting from the right motives – the good of your team and the organization should always take precedence above any self-serving motives. Lastly, be aware that the decisions you make have far reaching consequences and make sure that a short-term victory doesn’t come back to cost you in the end.