Managing Up When You’re On the Bottom
January 17, 2010 3 Comments
If you’re looking for tips about “managing up” — that is, on how to manage the person who manages you at work — you’ll quickly find enormous wells of advice. They range in quality from the patently obvious to the uniquely insightful, with the bulk on the former end of the spectrum. But what most of the recommendations have in common, regardless of their quality, is their having been written for upwardly mobile employees, or at least for people who think of work in terms of a career.
For the vast majority of U.S. workers, however, managing up boils down to figuring out how to just make it through the day. It’s about survival under the authority of managers who don’t themselves read the management literature or think much about managing people outside of the moments when they’re actually doing it, often mindlessly. Having grown up in a working class household, I have witnessed that firsthand. But I was reminded of it recently in the classroom, where some of my immigrant students spontaneously shared their stories about what it’s like to be “managed” when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy.
One of them, whom I’ll call Lydia, cleans the cages of laboratory rodents to earn a living. She shared an anecdote about being accused by her manager of taking a break when she wasn’t supposed to be on one. For Lydia, who is learning English as a second language, a quickly delivered verbal accusation is tantamount to a shot from a stun gun. She is paralyzed by the inability to find the words to defend herself against a charge that she needs an extra moment or two to even understand — and by her own cultural expectation that when your boss yells at you, you simply listen.
In the classroom, a safe place for Lydia, she was able to make clear to me and to her classmates — in English — that she actually had a very sophisticated understanding of the dynamic that led to her being accused, wrongly, of breaking a workplace rule. For example, she knew that her boss was stressed out about inadequate staffing that day, that missing uniforms were contributing to confusion in the lab, and that a new hire had botched protocol with some of the animals that morning. The context didn’t elude her — but communication did.
Given that, Lydia’s fellow students and I helped her decide which key phrases (phrases she already knew) to use the next time she finds herself in a situation like this one: “Please give me a chance to explain”; “May we sit down to discuss this?”; and “I understand why you are angry.” I even took the opportunity to teach the class the meaning of the phrase “managing up,” an expression which the students instantly found amusing, not to mention apt.
The wisdom we were sharing was, of course, nothing new or groundbreaking by any stretch. You can find it, and much more, in classic management articles such as Harvard Business Review’s “Managing Your Boss.” Yet it was clear how none of it had previously touched the lives of my students or, if my assessment of all the stories told that evening is accurate, even the lives of the managers to whom most of the students report at their jobs.
Lydia, fortunately, had finally managed to make clear to the manager that she was not on a break, but was actually hunting down the missing uniforms for herself and the floundering new hire. But the whole episode clearly took much longer — and created far more stress — than was necessary. Time squandered, another gray hair, a dozen more lab mice not fed on schedule.
On my way home that night, I wondered to myself about the vast segments of the workforce, even in the United States, who have been completely left out of the discourse on management thinking, or who get such diluted versions of it that none of it makes a real difference day-to-day. Why are the career-minded and the upwardly mobile pretty much the only people who find themselves with de facto access to the Management Laboratory? Surely language isn’t the only barrier.