This week, our editor Meredith gave some helpful tips on phrases that won’t exactly ingratiate you to your boss. It’s all about building a relationship, not just with the team of employees under your command, but with upper level execs who call all the shots. Being in the middle is a difficult position, one that takes tact and thoughtfulness. To be a successful middle manager, you must manage up and teach your boss what you need from them to do your job. I completely agree that you need to avoid statements like, “You really aren’t very good at this.” Obviously, insults aren’t going to get you ahead. But there’s one possibly insulting question that has to be asked. This statement might question your boss’s authority, but it’s absolutely necessary to ensure that you and your boss stay on the same page. And just because I like suspense, I’m going to share a little story before I reveal my number one, must-be-asked tip to communicating with your superiors.
I work for a company that might be considered a tad old-fashioned. We don’t have a website. Our sales crew grudgingly received Blackberries just this summer. (Getting email on their phones is a little mind-blowing for them, which I find adorable.) As one of the few employees with a basic working knowledge of Excel, Photoshop and Powerpoint, I’m often co-opted into doing minor graphic design work and creating last-minute sell sheets or promo announcements that didn’t make it to our marketing company in time. About once a week, someone asks for a favor and I spend an hour or so drawing up a quick sales tool to be used in a pitch the following morning.
Our company’s owners have gotten so used to bugging me for quick flyers that their confidence in my graphic capabilities has grown. In fact, it’s swelled far beyond my actual talent. I realized this when one of our owners told me that he needed our company’s price sheet to be redesigned, making room for a new line of products we would be carrying this winter. He gave me examples of work that he liked and talked about his thoughts on organizing our new company pricing memo. At that point, I saw how involved this project would be and made a comment that I very much regret, “This is going to take me a while.”
No, that’s not the secret question you need to be asking. That’s a dumb, vague statement that should have never left my mouth. My boss had no idea how long “a while” actually was. He assumed that this project was just like all the others. He believed that I was able to arrange important information in an easy-to-read, somewhat-attractive format. I am, normally. But he had a whole lot of information and some pretty specific aesthetic requirements. My boss had no idea about the complexity of his request. He definitely never assumed that he would be giving me an assignment that would take a full work day. He didn’t understand that my other jobs wouldn’t get done because I was perfecting his new pricing format. At the end of my very long day, when my boss was looking for both my newest project and all the other work that I needed to get to him, I realized the question that I should have asked all along.
“Are you aware of the complexity of your request?”
Ok, maybe I still need to work on the wording. But in same way, I needed to stop my boss and explain that while I was gabbing on about page sizes, margins and graphic formats, I was really trying to explain the difficulty level of my task. I should have said, “Hey, if I work on this project, I’m not going to be able to complete X,Y, or Z today.” In the most polite way possible, it was my job to communicate that this request had an opportunity cost of all my other work for that day.
Upper level management is very used to making a request and having that action completed. They say, “This needs to be done,” and middle management scrambles to make sure that it happens. But while those of us in the middle are trying to teach our boss how to instruct and what we can do to help them, we also need to make them aware of the time and effort needed to complete all their demands. Higher level executives need to be educated about the cost of their requests, including opportunity costs of stuff-not-done while concentrating energy in another area. While it may seem counter-productive to question your boss’s intelligence, I believe that one of the most helpful questions a middle manager can pose is, “Do you understand what you’re asking for?”