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Managing upward for success

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Last week I shared some insights about how leaders rise out of groups and how groups react to bad leadership. A number of people asked me whether I thought the same rules applied to situations where a leader was imposed from above. To gain some insight I asked a local expert. 

Mary Abbajay, chief executive of the Careerstone Group, specializes in organizational change. In connection with an upcoming book, she has been looking at the skills required for followers to successfully manage relationships with leaders they don’t pick. 

(Photo courtesy of Jonathan Aberman)

Abbajay finds commonality whether a leader rises or is imposed. Followers must be an active participant in the relationship with a leader.  People who are passive and just do what they are told rapidly find themselves disillusioned.   

Followers need to create a positive relationship with their leaders. They shouldn’t rely on leaders to do right by them.  nstead they need to manage upward through a conscious and deliberate effort to communicate to those above you in the chain of command.   

This is not an easy thing to do.   

Not every message from a subordinate will be met with openness. Much depends on the willingness of a leader to hear contrary viewpoints. Because it can be a risky proposition to manage upward, Abbajay recommends that followers have reasonable expectations for what speaking up can accomplish.   

When leaders do not rise from a group, their leadership likely occurred through external achievements or by pleasing someone other than the group members. This makes it less likely that the leader will be beholden to the group and more likely followers will have to adapt to the leader’s behavior traits. Successful people are particularly hard to change because they generally attribute their success to their dominant personality traits, so they will be slow to change unless they have to.   

In these situations, it is best to look for incremental changes. Because the grant of authority in an imposed leader is one way – authority of the leader over the followers – the delegation of authority that occurs when leaders emerge from a group does not exist. This means that changing leadership behavior for an imposed leader is more in the nature of a negotiation.  

To change the behavior of imposed leaders, followers must communicate clear benefits to the leader to be gained by changing his behavior. Additionally, responsible followers then must ask whether they are willing to do their part. Followers need to be self-critical. Why are they asking a leader to change, and what will they do in response? Followers are obligated to speak up and follow through.   

Assuming that the leader is open to input, and the followers are willing to do their part, an effective bond can be built. Even in the case of an imposed leader, the best leaders and followers develop a sense of shared responsibility. In a way, the best imposed leaders delegate some of their authority to the group, even when they don’t have to. Where leaders and followers become tightly connected and develop a bi-directional relationship, organizations are healthy and the morale of followers is high.   

The lesson is clear: effective leadership, however it arises, is a shared responsibility. Even a boss imposed from above is more likely to be effective by positively engaging with her followers.  

As I tend to, when looking at these issues I ask whether these lessons for business are equally true for politics. When it comes to leaders imposed from above, there is one big difference. In business, if followers determine they can’t work with a boss, the most likely remedy is to change jobs.  

In politics, if you don’t like your leaders, you vote them out of office.

Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of TandemNSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

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