Volume 32 Number 12
Upstart - Managing the Manager: 15 Tips for Working Better
By Krishnan Rangachari | December 2017
Broadly speaking, engineering managers span the spectrum from micromanagers to completely hands-off bosses. The challenge for developers is understanding how to “manage up,” no matter where their managers are on the spectrum. Here are 15 ideas that can help:
- Mimic. It’s tempting to over-communicate with hands-off managers, sending them detailed status reports or describing everything you’re up to. Unconsciously, you may want to “prove” to them that you’re trustworthy and independent. Instead, be hands-off with them! For instance, loop them in only when you have high-impact news to share, or when you need their help.
- Vindicate. With this approach, a hands-off manager is trusting you by default, until you give her reason to think otherwise. Fulfill this trust by being thorough, conscientious, detail-oriented and honest in your projects. The more you do this, the more freedom you earn.
- Escalate. Sometimes, a hands-off approach may not be in the best interest of the team or project. In such a situation, it’s OK to request more support and hand-holding. Most managers will happily oblige—in fact, they may have been waiting for you to ask!
- Reinforce. If you like managers who are hands-off, tell them so, regularly, and explain why. This encourages them to relax even more.
- Credit. Make a point to share credit with your hands-off manager, even if she plays only a passing role in a project. Identify her as a co-creator or co-author. This isn’t empty praise. Your manager’s limited involvement is often instrumental to your success and growth.
- Object. It can be important to set limits with an overly active manager. If you have a valid complaint, approach the conversation so that it’s about how you feel, rather than what they did wrong. Focus on what you and your manager can do together to improve things. As an example, you could say, “When you did X, it made me feel Y. What can we do together to avoid this in the future?”
- Prevent. Signs of trouble can be spotted before you ever take a job, such as in the way your future manager negotiates salary or title, deals with an offer deadline, or speaks about his colleagues or bosses. You can honor those red flags by not taking the role.
- Tolerate. Anytime I’ve made a “dramatic exit” to make a point, by walking out on a micromanager, I’ve come to regret it. It weakens my bonds to everyone on that team and closes the door on future opportunities. If you do feel the need to leave the team, wait until you no longer feel furious.
- Flex. You might disagree with a micromanager’s approach to a project, but implementing her direction can actually help expand your worldview. By accepting her opinion over your personal judgment, you learn how to not be overly wedded to your beliefs—and occasionally, you may even start to see the validity of hers.
- Silence. If your micromanager insults or railroads you, silence might be the best (and only!) viable response. Other times, you could say, “I don’t know right now,” or, “I feel overwhelmed, so let me think about it.” More broadly, you could even reframe your entire relationship with your manager, viewing it as a vehicle for serving others and learning to accept those who are different.
- Lead. Most managers care about the quality of your work, and the results you achieve, regardless of their level of day-to-day involvement. So, in your chats with them, focus on high-level outcomes. You can also describe steps you’re taking to ensure highest-quality results. This approach elevates your conversations to focus on how you work and what you achieve, rather than the nitty-gritty of daily bug fixes or implementation details.
- Delimit. When you ask your manager for help, focus her attention by being very specific in your ask. This helps ground your manager’s thinking to produce actionable advice.
- Connect. Managers are human, so you can consciously deepen your personal relationship with them. If you genuinely care, you can ask them about their family, health, hobbies and the like. These conversations deepen your understanding of your manager, and the shared vulnerability from them can bring both of you closer together.
- Schedule. It’s good to schedule separate one-on-one time with managers devoted solely to the discussion of your career goals and performance. These focused discussions allow them to be hands-on in growing your responsibilities and career.
- Clear. Identify your manager’s top-of-mind priorities, then go to work on one of those. You’ll not only accelerate your growth, you’ll also train yourself to be more perceptive.
Krishnan Rangachari is an advisor to CTOs, CIOs, and VPs of Engineering on organizational transformation, culture creation, and engineering leadership. Visit RadicalShifts.com for his private newsletter and webinars.