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Design Patterns for Managing Up (acm.org)
341 points by denzil_correa 86 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 68 comments

Concise articulation, and valuable. My comment is that this is happy-path advice.

Corporate culture has changed to where instead of handling conflict according to principle (e.g. Harvard negotiation project, getting to yes, principled negotiations etc), today people are trained to out-passive each other, and marshal political campaigns to isolate opposition. (salience, political survival, working the ref, etc.)

The moment you acknowledge that the person you are dealing with is being disingenuous and manipulative is the moment you have lost. That you can see the mechanism critically signals you do not have power, and that you cannot be trusted to "keep the ball in the air."

The typical response to this is, "that's black and white thinking, people have different perspectives and views, which are valuable and legitimate." While that is generally true, different perspectives aren't the problem, nor are they new. It's a minority of people who exploit the agreeableness and civility of others with a small toolkit of negative plays, and who cluster in high-status organizations because they are motivated by proximity to power, but without responsibility itself.

The OP articulates valuable patterns for navigating flat organizations in calm seas. A set of patterns that describe when the knives are out would be a helpful follow up.

Usually the technologist is not even in the room with the business leaders. Your manager or their manager is. You want to be (and be seen as) valuable. You have to depend on your manager to vouch for you. If you have a complete asshole political or whatever manager, you must find another job. Don’t bother swimming against the tide.

But its a whole other language that business leaders speak. Different etiquette. At least in F50 companies it may be better in smaller tech companies. If you’re in the room you have to speak their language, not how you would talk w a group of technologists. You have to learn new languages and immersion is good if you can get into enough high level meetings.

But, always complete self-confidence, decisiveness, problem solving. If people get aggressive, give it back. Even the CEO. Not disrespectful. Being tough without sounding like an asshole is also a skill. Even just the tone of your voice, so you have to have self control of your emotions.

Good to have a healthy retirement account too you won’t be subconsciously so worried about losing your job.

Not caring if they fire you but wanting to stay and make life better for your coworkers everyday is the place to be if you can find it.

Yes, always make sure to follow all the rules you've read in a book! Then you will be save and feel well.


absolutely this! Gervais principle is a very valuable (and entertaining) way to decode what is going on in the organization.

The one bit of advice I would give to someone trying to use Gervais to understand someone in the organization's motivations : just because they may act according to Gervais doesn't mean they are bad or evil or broken in some way.

The more seasoned the manager or exec will say at this point that you should always see everyone as having good intentions. It’s of course not true at all, but seems to be one if the mental tools they use to not acknowledge what someone is really doing. I think what it does do in reality is gives the person a way out when they come to their senses without having to admit they went down a selfish dark path. So in that sense it’s practical. Although it can take years with some people too. Personally I just fire them if they report to me or I have sone influence I get them out of the org another way.

You're higher up the food chain than the audience of that article. Just keep doing your job better than they do their job and vent to allies behind closed doors.

There's a guy on our team who does #1 one in the article ALL the time. NNP who slows the team by 25% probably.

No one knows how to make him stop. Everyone is politely tapping on his fishbowl and it hasn't worked yet for like months.

>No one knows how to make him stop. Everyone is politely tapping on his fishbowl and it hasn't worked yet for like months.

I was this employee once, but in a slightly different situation. I had a bad habit of responding to things I didn't understand in a way that almost always put people on the defensive. People didn't want to work or interact with me and politely and subtly trying to get me to stop didn't work. This was a problem across jobs, and was a huge blind spot for me.

It took a very direct and blunt conversation from my new manager where he flat out told me when I behave this way, I come off like a complete prick and no one wants to work with me for me to even realize what I was doing. It crushed me for a few days, but after some reflection, I realized I was crushed because it was true. This was nearly 7 years ago, and I'll always love and appreciate my manager for having that hard conversation with me. His having the courage to be blunt with me has made me an immeasurably better person.

My advice is find someone who is blunt or has the courage to have that hard conversation (my boss was English, and I think being blunt and direct was very natural for him, but he's also very courageous) and tell this person that their behavior is wasting a lot of people's time, and people are starting to get annoyed. Remind them that it's not a big deal now but it can become a big deal, and that in the end, people will remember the improvement and value that, not the original problem. I don't remember the pain of being crushed, I remember my appreciation for my manager who had this hard conversation with me when no one else in the past 3 years would.

I'm confused. What exactly were you doing?

The real power play is to confidently and assertively state “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you in X hours with an answer” and be on point with the timing. Someone that promises and delivers on time causes people to melt and program managers to fall in love.

What do you say to the person who won't do that?

I'm not sure I understanding you but I'm curious to hear more. What is an NNP? And are you saying that a colleague following the advice in part 1 of the article is slowing down your entire team? If yes, how so?

NNP = net negative producer. by "he does #1 in the article" I mean he responds to questions in an authoritative and confident tone which we take to mean the words he is saying are true, but they are not. He absolutely will not say, "I don't know. "

He sits between the business people who tell him what they want us to build. So we build it exactly to the spec and the end user sits down to verify what we did is correct and immediately says, "this isn't what I asked for at all."

We've had to rebuild things 2, 3, 4 times, maybe more I've lost count. Without him we would have been on time and budget, instead we are WAY behind.

Imagine user stories with one sentence like: System should search like Google does.

He'll say it's easy just do it like it's already been done. Are you saying you aren't a Google level developer? that's a 3 point story, right? It's simple.

You just described working in a tech org of a major IB

Indeed, turns out I may also have described "gaslighting," https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/here-there-and-every... , which is perhaps why I sound so grouchy.

Like a startup whose leadership in effect says, "we just raised way too much money and have no path to market fit, let's just gaslight the talent until they attrition out and we can blame them for the time lost, while hopefully our competitors will establish a market where then the board can find a greater fool to buy us before we have to raise another round."

Please, help me be wrong. :)

Sometimes when the "knives are out" you can't win or why would you want to?

"why would you want to"

you want to if you have a mortgage payment each month, or there are people in your life who depend on you for food and clothing.

Maybe you just don't want to get stabbed in the back before you get a new job.

at least you should try not to lose in that situation

We, the bold and productive, have to stand up to that kind of stuff. Else they by attrition.

Well you at least don't want to bring a pillow to a knife fight.

Actually, wouldn't a pillow be a reasonably effective way to deflect a knife?

I usually think of the metaphor in terms of bringing a knife to a pillow fight as a play on "that's like bringing a knife to a gun fight" in which case my formulation is about having an innocent bit of fun and then someone going way overboard and doing something absolutely inappropriate. I sort of picture it in my head like everyone is having fun and then someone whips out a knife and then everyone starts to get very terrified.

I never really considered how a pillow would actually hold up against a knife in a fight. My money would still be on the knife, but I take your point.

My favorite managing up pattern is the Feynman estimation technique. During the Manhattan project he and others were asked to report on what they would be discovering in the next quarter. Since they were doing groundbreaking work nobody had a clue how to answer and this caused the researchers a great deal of stress. Then they realized they could just hold back 3 months worth of results and “estimate” the discoveries they had just made. The end result was that management was very happy with the predictable progress and the scientists were free to do their work unimpeded.

Applying this in contemporary corporate America is left as an exercise for the reader.

Strikes me as a method that would work very well in a world before business analytics audits and KPIs.

Just need a management consultant to give it a clever name like "superscalar project management" and some powerpoint slides and you're good to go.

Also used in research grant proposals

Very cool process but this seems antithetical to the tech world which is often driven by agile processes, right? I can’t imagine a business leader being happy about making decisions that should be “agile” on dated information. This seems a bit like lying to get away with working on pet projects unhindered by product/business. Am I way off-base and misunderstanding the suggestion here?

It works with agile. You just have to sandbag a bit. Doesn't have to be 3months in an agile organization, just work for a sprint, then tell manager that's your plan for next sprint. If they change plan, you'll naturally have a 1 sprint slip, and in Sprint 2 you plan the previous sprint's worth. Or do this on the week or day level.

Do you have a source for this (maybe an autobiography or some blog article)? I'd love to read more on the story leading up to him deciding to go with this strategy.

I don't recall the exact book. It was one of the collections of anecdotes. Maybe, Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman? Otherwise What Do You Care What Other People Think? or The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

I disagree with #4, your manager giving negative feedback.

Asking a manager to clarify the feedback shouldn't put that manager on the defensive. If the manager hasn't gone to the trouble of getting those details then they need to be educated on how to deliver negative feedback.

Instead of simply saying "I hear you. I will be more mindful of that in the future.", a more productive response would be:

"Based on what you've shared it's not clear to me exactly what I did wrong or how I might do things differently in a similar situation in the future. Are there additional details you can share? <if they answer no:> Can you get those details so that I can make this a part of my learning plan?" <if they waffle:> What advice do you have for me for how to better handle this situation in the future?"

You've now educated the manager as to what level of detail you need when it comes to feedback. They should know that they can't just toss incoming feedback over the transom. They need to dig into the details and do what it takes to help you grow.

I believe the better approach to #1 is to:

- say that you’re not sure

- articulate an hypothesis of what it might be to the best of your knowledge (it's likely you’re going to be 80% right)

- propose to launch an effort / work stream / project to figure it out

In many cases managers are just happy with an 80% answer and will reject to waste efforts to dive deeper. Managers can deal with uncertainty and with situations where the 80% answer is wrong. What they typically don’t like is being stalled

> - propose to launch an effort / work stream / project to figure it out

...This is only applicable if it's something major, that would require research or experimentation, rather than "let me go talk to Drew after this meeting" or even "I'll look it up on Wikipedia."

I suspect that those would cover a majority of the cases of this.

> articulate an hypothesis of what it might be to the best of your knowledge (it's likely you’re going to be 80% right)

Please don't do this. Many managers and clients have a far better bullshit detector than you give them credit for. They might never say it directly to you, but you just lost their respect by trying to guess instead of being honest. When programmers I interview try to bullshit their way through an answer they clearly don't know, it's almost always the end of the interview. Especially because I make it super clear at the beginning that I prefer "I don't know". A solid "I don't know but I do know I can get you an answer or an update in a couple of hours" is the approach that earns my respect every time. And likely you'll be right 100% of the time with that answer.

This is absolutely _not_ about bullshitting your way out of it. Far from it. It is about articulating an hypothesis (based on your experience) of what the answer is most likely to be. It is saying: "We're not yet sure why the server crashed, but from my experience it is most of the times the A/C system, for which I would suggest checking the logs now". It is honest, articulates a way forward, and might in many meetings just be sufficient to keep the discussion moving forwards. Again, it is the job of a manager to deal with controlled uncertainty.

That's not the situation described in the article. The situation described in the article is pretty specific: Someone asks you something you don't know. It's right in the title. And it goes on to describe a situation in which you may end up making up something on the spot, trying to be as vague as possible so you can't be wrong.

So yes, if your hypothesis is just something you made up only so you can have an answer, then please don't do that. I don't care how solid the guess is. It's still a guess just to have an answer.

In the situation you described, you do know something and you're sharing that knowledge. I have no problem with people sharing that knowledge. It's not a hypothesis. It's the opposite of "you don't know". It's knowledge about the history of the situation.

In situations like those, if I'm not sure but there are probable answers, I usually say: we're not sure yet, it could be X or Y, but we need ... time to know for sure.

The other people are usually smart enough to know if they need a more precise answer or not.

If I have completely no idea, then I just say so.

He's not suggesting "Guess and pass it of as true".

Instead, the idea is to say "Well, I am not sure. However, If I had to guess, I'd say X" where X is your best guess. You can follow up with "If needed, I could find out for sure in {time-frame}"

Fair clarification. I don't appreciate that approach either. Just go find out what the problem is and report back. Unless someone specifically asks you to guess, you are just wasting everyone's time. And in a meeting with clients and upper management, that could add up to $$$ thousands per hour. "If I had to guess". You usually don't have to. So don't do it. Just my $0.02. Maybe other managers see it differently.

EDIT: I should clarify why this often goes badly. "If I had to guess, it's the filter in the gas line". Now everyone thinks it's a $20 problem, and they appreciate having an expert like you around to help them mentally frame the extent of the problem. When you come back with "actually the entire engine is warped and needs to be replaced", everyone is going to be disappointed. Like it or not, that disappointment is attached to you now. Trust is lost. There is almost nothing ever to be gained from guessing.

You sound like a person who has difficulty operating in an uncertain environment.

Sometimes certainty is expensive. In fact, in my experience with complex systems, it usually is. Depending on what you're uncertain about, you may need to modify the system to measure it. Resolving uncertainty can take a long time, particularly if the thing you're trying to be certain about is a rare event or cannot easily be isolated.

When certainty is hard to achieve, making probabilistic decisions sooner and falling back to more costly decisions with more expensive certainty only after those have failed, is a better general strategy, even if you're sometimes wrong. Analysis paralysis is real. Someone who always acts the way you suggest has too much fear of being wrong, IMO.

It could be warranted in other situations, where human life is on the line. I think it's not a fast enough process for most businesses though.

> You sound like a person who has difficulty operating in an uncertain environment.

Not at all. I deal with uncertainty all the time. What I don't like is people inventing answers, just so they have an answer. I think you'll find this "intolerance" increasingly as you deal with people higher and higher up in management. People's time becomes increasingly the most expensive factor by far. Let's stay focused here. That paragraph in the article is advice about what to do when "someone asks you something you don't know". I'm still firmly in the camp of a simple "I don't know, but I will find out for you." YMMV.

Not sure if they cover...

A typical scenario is that you are in a corporate culture where, for whatever reason your manager does not "manage down", like at all. Meaning that they are not giving you direction and nor are they listening to any needs, direction from you (ok, maybe once per quarter?). Your interactions with them (if you are letting them set the schedule) are very limited. Now that can be great or bad.

Typically though these people (by essence of being someone you report to) control more corporate power than you do. They can perhaps authorize work, hire 10s of additional resources, approve muilti million dollar projects, set a budget for next year, etc. So it becomes imperative for you to 'manage up' if you want to achieve more than what you are being fed.

Just how to do that, maybe this book covers. Hope so.

A typical scenario is that you are in a corporate culture where, for whatever reason your manager does not "manage down", like at all.

Indeed, there's a whole range of dysfunctional (and sometimes simply toxic) managerial behaviors that seem to occur very frequently int the workplace, and for which it'd be nice to see some advice as to how to deal with them.

But overall the advice in this particular article seems very superficial.

Is there any similar themed advice for managing same-seniority coworkers handballing their responsibilities?

Person A owns task

Person A: I don't know much about task, but person B seems like an expert. Person B, please take over task

Person B is no more or less qualified at task than person A

Perhaps you shouldn't allow handover of such responsibility or tasks. Force Person A to own task but allow Person B to assist Person A. Surely Person A won't mind help Frontera on B.

Person B should probably accept but present the trade off. Allow the manager to decide what matters. Confidently state what options are possible within timeframe X

Person A may legitimately view person B as more qualified. Whether or not this is true.

The best thing you can do is work for a good manager. If you have a crappy manager find a way out to get under another manager or otherwise just outlast them.

Good article! I agree with most of it.


'As a leader, you don't want to tell your team that the reason things are changing is "because _ made me do it." That makes it seem like you have no power, as though you do things just because you are told to. It certainly won't inspire confidence in your team or make them any more likely to embrace the decision.'

Are you sure?

Do you really want to tell your team "We are painting the building purple because fairies love the color purple and will bring us good luck"? Especially when your team already knows you personally don't believe in fairies?

It seems to me "Look, the CEO is firmly committed to the belief in fairies, and has made the policy decision that we are going to paint the building purple. It's up to us to implement that decision," is the least bad thing to say in that situation.

So, when a decision is made that doesn't make sense to you, here are the steps:

2. Don't disagree;

This sounds like a recipe for a toxic work culture where everyone is walking on eggshells and fearful not only of stating their opinions - but in many cases, making simple statements about objective reality.

Great job taking the comment entirely out of context.

The next part of that sentence is "ask about the context and reasons for the change", immediately followed by, "Start with your manager or the main decision maker if you have a prior relationship, and then escalate up the chain of command together (rather than just emailing your thoughts to the CEO)."

> making simple statements about objective reality.

It is extremely rare that decisions are "objectively" bad -- that was the main point of that section. In fact, the article explicitly says: "Remember there is someone in the chain who thinks this is a good idea; that is why it is being implemented. So, it is worth your time to try to understand the "why" behind this idea"

Great job taking the comment entirely out of context.

I read and understood the full context. I was keeping it short for the sake of simplicity.

The basic message they're conveying is, after all: "If you have disagreements, don't express them."

It is extremely rare that decisions are "objectively" bad -- that was the main point of that section.

I was referring not to the decisions, but to the assertions about reality that are used to justify them.

I read the advice vastly more as "don't immediately express your counter-argument; instead, first ask questions and seek to understand how the decision was reached; after that, you're in a more informed position to discuss intelligently the decision and how that intersects with the way you see things".

See also Chesterton's Fence: https://www.chesterton.org/taking-a-fence-down/

Question for the crowd: how to manage up a politically savvy skip manager that routinely trivializes engineering effort? They couch it in sarcasm, something like "oh you can build that in like 2 minutes, it's just an SQL query and 3 lines of python, right?"

This manager wants to make you smaller, so that he can look bigger and exert more power. In my experience, the only way to counter is by also making a strong gesture. For the dialog you sketched, possible responses could be "Then you can surely do it yourself in 2 minutes". Another, more aggressive, option would be to answer "this joke gets old". You need to find your own tone, obviously, which should not be agitated-aggressive, but make clear that he now has an opponent, and you will not be an easy victim for his power games.

Obviously, this is a risky approach; only do it if you can afford switching jobs. But in my experience it is less risky than it looks. Bullying persons have a good sense of their opponent's strength, and will rather look for new easy targets than going into a serious fight. If you can talk to your team mates and make this a team stance, this will of course strengthen your position further.

I think you would find negotiation practices helpful, e.g. check out the book "Never split the difference" to learn some negotiation techniques and "Elephant in the brain" to understand that this behavior is likely not about technology.

It's not a negotiation in good faith because they are "just joking man!"

As someone who actually builds things you have more leverage than you think in this or any other conversation with your manager, you need to learn how to use it better.

Find another job.

I've found "Extreme Ownership" by Jocko Willink good for getting into the mindset of managing up without a nagging / second guessing touch.

Amazon LPs:

1) Customer Obsession

2) Ownership

3) Disagree and Commit

4) Vocally Self-Critical / Earns Trust / Learn and be Curious

Or instead acting like personal PR is your only contribution to the species, you can just say reasonable things that make sense including things like "I don't know" on a circumstantial basis using your human brain and social instincts.

I think the abstract pattern here is: own it.

It is slightly different: lower anxiety.

You do that by being reliable, honest, receptive, taking ownership, mitigating risk.

But the human dimension is emotional. Your counterparts feel it as anxiety. They will ultimate adjust their internal feelings to you based on how anxious you make them.

Thank you. Good read.

This is good advice

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