Manage Up by Telling Your Boss What You Need

A great online post by Susan Fowler suggests that if you’re not getting what you need from your manager, it’s probably your fault. Your boss is paid to do a lot of things, but reading your mind isn’t one of them. Take the initiative when something is important to you.

Fowler starts with getting rid of dumb questions. Yes, she says, there is such a thing as a dumb question. Like this one: “Are you busy?” or this one: “Do you have a minute?”

Well, that depends. Your boss might be very likely to say “not right now.” You haven’t given her any context about what you need or how important it is. Fowler suggests you replace asking about her time with a statement of your need. “I need 30 minutes of your time today or tomorrow to discuss my next steps on this project.”  “I need instructions for formatting this report.”

Fowler writes, “Ironically, by clearly stating what you need, you won’t come across as needy, but as self-possessed and aware of how valuable time is — yours and especially your manager’s.”

Sometimes, we back into requests, making it hard for managers to figure out what we’re asking. If you need more support, more resources, or more money, lead with clear language. “I’m asking for extra support for the project team. We need about 10 more hours of coding work than we projected to fix this bug.”

Putting the verb “to ask” at the front of your conversation gives your manager a frame of reference for the conversation. It helps him understand whether you’re requesting his help, his advice, his consent, or something tangible – or if you’re just there to vent.

If “just venting” is your usual operating mode, it might take a while to train your boss to pay attention. He’s used to being able to multitask while you let off steam, making sympathetic noises while he checks his email. Be patient and persistent; this pattern is new to both of you.

It’s a good idea to prepare for objections ahead of time so they don’t derail you or discourage you after you’ve made your request. Objections serve an important purpose for your manager – they’re a crucial part of due diligence. Do you really need what you’re asking for to achieve a goal? Or would it simply be nice to have it? If your request involves something meaningful, you should be glad your manager is asking questions. It signals that she’s taking the request seriously. “I’ll think about it” is usually both a denial and dismissal in a soft little package.

And what if the answer is no?

The blog offers this advice: “If your request is declined, don’t put your tail between your legs and go home. Instead, use this as a conversation starter. Ask for more information. Fight for your point of view. Find out what needs to happen in order to get to “yes.” Press for specifics and get agreement. Then, follow up.”

You may not always get what you want (or what you need – sorry, Mick.) But you’ll never know unless you ask.

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