How to manage up without your head exploding
January 14, 2022 2:39 AM   Subscribe

A key element of all my jobs to date has been managing up. It's getting harder and harder. What are some ways to do this effectively, without sending my anxiety through the roof?

I have to do a lot of project management in my role, and this has been a key responsibility in all my jobs to date. However, it's getting harder and harder to do and I'm OVER IT.

I'm a moderately senior member of staff, whose responsibility is to triangulate processes between senior internal people and influential external people. I'm sort of the door-opener; once the door is opened, my job is to fade tactfully into the background, while at the same time keeping a close eye on the process without actually being involved in it, to keep an eye out for any snags etc.

I largely don't mind this. When things go smoothly, when the internal people I'm managing up are responsive and enthusiastic, it's actually quite a joy. But more and more I'm running up against the opposite problem: senior people who don't do the things they've promised to do and end up stalling or at worst ruining the relationship with external people.

My previous boss used to give me a really hard time when things like this happened. He would be like, "I don't care if so and so hasn't done a thing, you have to do it for them if they don't do it, you have to own the process'. This has really amped up my anxiety in many cases. You see the thing is I do not have the knowledge, expertise, authority or permission in many cases to do the thing if the person who's supposed to do it isn't doing it. All I can do is pester them, or get my current boss to pester them if they won't respond to me. I find it really demoralising to be in a situation where it feels like I am the only person who cares if a thing gets done and I'm the only person who will get into trouble if it doesn't. And this is of course in addition to the basics of managing up: giving people lots of time and notice, giving them all the information and support they need, making it as easy as possible for them to do the thing I need them to do.

I think this kind of work can really bad when you have a particular kind of anxiety - the sense that if you don't personally do a thing or see it done, you cannot relax and assume it will happen. Because largely this is the case in my role. I can't relax. I can't assume people will do what they've said they will. Over the Christmas period I took some time off, and in my absence, a number of things went wrong because I wasn't there to pester people or check things. It's a bit of a nightmare when you come back from a long-awaited break to find that everything has gone wrong because you weren't there.

I feel like this is a function of this kind of job and a lot of internal pen-pushing roles and I'm not saying it's terrible in and of itself, but I find it very difficult to manage the effect it has on my anxiety.

I've gotten really excellent advice from AskMe in the past about work and anxiety. Sorry to keep harping on these subjects. TIA for any advice.
posted by unicorn chaser to Work & Money (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This is quite a tough position to be in and I've been there myself. I think the main things I would try in your position would be to ensure you have checkpoints in place prior to key deadlines and also work on developing and agreeing escalation procedures in advance as part of your risk management process for the projects.

For checkpoints, these should include calls or conversations, not just email. These can help flag up issues in advance of critical moments, but you should also be documenting them and recording what commitments people have made about delivery. You can then report these to your own manager.

On risk management, when you're initiating a new project, I would consciously and explicitly raise this as a risk and talk to your manager about how to mitigate it and what your contingency plans are. Maybe suggest escalation to senior leaders who can hold those who don't deliver to account, but the ultimate aim for all this is to move yourself out of the blame zone and keep responsibility on the people who should actually be doing the work.
posted by knapah at 5:00 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

That is frustrating. It's nice to know you're important to the organization, but it would also be nice to know that there are other grown-ups around who can handle things for a little while if you take a vacation.

Ticketing systems can be the devil, but does your organization have anything like Jira or similar? Then it's unambiguous (and public) who is holding which ball, and when they got the ball, what thing they were supposed to do with the ball, and when they were supposed to do *the thing* by. Sounds like the people who are skillful at avoiding doing *the thing* are the same kind of people who will put a question on a ticket and assign it back to you, but then you'll have cold, hard data to share with your manager: "of the last 14 times I asked Fred to do his part, which is clearly laid out in ticket e.g. FRED-123 and mimics tasks he's done before, his first response is to reply with a question that was already in the explanation 9 times."

"Caring if it gets done" is good, since you are a thorough professional. "Being the only person who gets in trouble if it's not done" is horseshit, and your manager should know this. IF they didn't need those other people to do their work, why are they there? IF you could do their job, you would be doing their job, instead of herding cats. You can own a process without being the only "throat to throttle" is the somber business jargon.

I've been involved in a lot of tech projects, where there's a lot of moving parts and differing kinds of (and amounts of) expertise. Trying to explain to a non-techy person, I used this analogy; your manager might appreciate what you're facing: you hired me to drive a bus, and I'm happy to drive the bus. But somebody needs to sell tickets for the bus ride; I can't do that while I'm driving the bus. Somebody needs to get the passengers to the bus station before the bus leaves, and I can't do that while I'm driving the bus either. Engine maintenance? Important, but not me. Air in the tires? Important, but not me. Cleaning the bus, changing the oil, etc etc etc? All very critical to success, all out of my lane.

Is your current boss less anxiety-provoking than your old boss?
posted by adekllny at 6:50 AM on January 14 [2 favorites]

I've been at a lot of jobs where I was responsible for turning in whatever deliverable but not allowed to work on that kind of deliverable so I had to depend on someone else to do it who always wound up flaking on me no matter who they were. When you have all of the responsibility but none of the agency it's a sick system. In a sick system you have to develop a Grand Canyon-sized well of inner peace and acceptance for the present and an eye for getting out some how.
posted by bleep at 7:18 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

One important thing to figure out in your organization is what kinds of failures are actually important, and what kind are not a big deal. This can be tough in the beginning, because it's different for every company and department. At the job that stressed me out the most I eventually figure out that the most of the goals were literally impossible, but it didn't actually matter if we failed them. The goals were way too ambitious, so failure was just kind of expected. It's probably not how your company works, but there is some equivalent.

It doesn't actually matter if something fails to happen that is your theoretical responsibility. Failures matter when they are either critical to the company or your job, or when you get personally blamed for them. So if someone above you fails to do something and you lose a client, this may be totally fine depending on the client. You just need to frame it as a failure in the clients part or of circumstances, as you want to deflect blame from both yourself and the higher up.

You're still pretty new at the company so you can treat these situations that go wrong as important sources of information. That personally helps me avoid getting too caught up in the success emotionally, and could help you better learn what really matters. Good luck, this is a difficult situation but it sounds like you're most of the way there to handling it properly
posted by JZig at 8:47 AM on January 14

The same mentality that makes you a good, conscientious project manager can easily turn into the anxiety you are talking about. Unfortunately I think your old boss set some pretty toxic expectations about what is and isn't within your role and when you think you're going to be blamed for things over which you literally have no control its no wonder you feel a sense of dread.
There is a grain of truth in the "own the process" stuff which is you do need to anticipate and try to resolve problems before they turn into failures caused by people not doing stuff. Knapah's answer about defining your escalations in advance is great advice and helps make explicit who is responsible for getting things done.
In terms of the anxiety itself, partly you have to separate your role from your core sense of self. If you've planned ahead, notified, escalated, and worked with stakeholders to get the tasks done and the owners still don't do them, that should be on them not on you, and you need to be able to politely but firmly make that clear to your boss or whoever else asks.
Unfortunately if you have a boss or a company where you're going to get blamed no matter who didn't do something*, or if they expect you to do other people's jobs to make the project succeed, that's a sign you need to look for the exit as soon as possible.

*with the caveat that JZig makes the very good point that sometimes companies want someone to take blame, but it has no real consequences You absorb organisational woe and things carry on as before. If you don't mind sometimes being the scapegoat, but it doesn't affect your status in the company, that can, paradoxically, be good for you because you are seen as someone that takes responsibility, even though everyone kind of knows that the fault lies elsewhere.
posted by crocomancer at 7:54 AM on January 16

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