The Versatile Manager — Strategies to Manage Up, Down, and Laterally
Hello! My name is Dave and I build IT teams and tech for early stage companies. I recognized the same challenges at each startup, so I set out to create a set of standards for early stage companies navigating the tech ecosystem. Learn more about my philosophy or inquire about engagements at The IT Plan.
It’s easy for managers to fall into the trap of focusing all of their energy managing downwards. Approaching management as a skillset inclusive of lateral and upwards governance, new strategies appear to offer benefits in all directions.
We’ll begin with a brief overview of three popular management styles, define the characteristics of directional interactions, and suggest strategic practices to apply in your lateral and upwards relationships.
Three Management Style Buckets
Sociologists studying work behavior developed profiles of similar characteristics that defined how a manager responded to various circumstances. Each is then evaluated to determine which response elicits an optimal outcome at work. Great managers go inwards to know their style and learn others to apply as necessary.
Modern management styles are grouped into three categories but much like the Ayurvedic concept of doshas, a manager will often have a primary syle while displaying characteristics from another.
Most closely aligned with dictatorship, an autocratic manager:
- Makes decisions with little feedback from others,
- Exerts control over the environment through directives,
- Clearly designates responsibility and assignments.
This style is best suited for emergencies, outages, and other chaotic environments whereby one responsible party expedites decision making. Heirarchical environments, such as the military, also benefit from this style.
With more emphasis on the worker, this style is analogous to group leadership and demonstrates:
- Including feedback, opinions, and viewpoints of others in the decision-making process,
- First offers work as electives or opportunities before assignment,
- Shares governing responsibilities with emphasis on participation.
Most common in ‘flat’ environments with less meaning around titles, democratic leaders are adept at developing people. They’ll benefit from a wide range of experiences in the world but need to recognize when a decision must be made or when group-think threatens to obscure the best solution.
More aloof than other styles, those taking a laissez-faire approach:
- Make decisions only when they are absolutely necessary,
- May or may not be aware of direct report’s responsibilities or projects,
- Will generally be reactive to an environment or absent.
This type of leader exerts less control and recognizes that as situations change, employing Time may be the best solution. Highly flexible, they are great at keeping the machine running.
In which of these categories would you place yourself? Does your work culture encourage one or another? In what situations are you apt to react with a certain style?
Now that we’re familiar with the top three management styles, let’s review each of the managerial directions.
Most organizational structures are heirarchical and follow the pattern of threes. Pivoting around a manager, we see direct reports who report to them (requiring downwards management), peers who work laterally to them (lateral management), and a superior to whom they report (upwards management). Let’s start by reviewing the conditions and aspects of each direction.
In a interaction or relationship of this nature, the manager:
- Holds authority (hire/fire) and responsibility (development & role),
- Understands how the employee contributes and fits into a greater team or organizational strategy (high visibility),
- Directly influences the employee’s wellbeing and output at work (psychological safety),
Peer relationships often lack an aspect of power struggle, but resemble siblings in a family heirarchy. When viewed through this lens, a manager will:
- Have little/no official or authorized influence over the other (although informal or peer-granted influence may result from seniority, admiration, mentorship, other social or cultural factors, et. al.),
- Be highly supportive and commiserate freely or unsupportive and avoidant,
- Share or compete for resources and attention of senior leadership.
Traditionally, in this relationship, the manager:
- Yields little actual power or influence,
- Acts with increased deference,
- Seeks to impress or gain praise,
- May seek to “dethrone” and builds political capital towards that end.
It can be said that all three share some characteristics, such as when the manager:
- Exercises judgement in manners of information disclosure,
- Adopts a view of the other party as friend or foe,
- Can provide valuable behavioral insight to the other party,
Do your work relationships reflect that of personal and family relationships? What is the driving force behind how you treat a report, peer, or superior? Could you infer any correlations between these relationships and the same in other arenas of life and social circles?
Next, let’s take a look at how we can approach each relationship from a strategic perspective.
Directional Managerial Strategies
Many factors will inform our approach to relationship management. Those around you will be pursuing separate goals and employing their own managerial styles. Consider how you may react in a circumstance in which your manager, peers, or direct reports are aggressive or one in which they are absent.
Use these empathetic prompts to inform your strategic approach to everyday and uniquely challenging situations. But remember that it will take time to develop a chosen response versus exhibit your default reaction. Have patience with yourself and consider adopting a pass/fail approach to each circumstance.
The Difference Between Strategy and Style
Recognizing the factors that influence relationships is like seeing the terrain before charting a map. Your strategy will be influenced by many factors, including:
- Your personality, goals, and behavioral traits, as well as those of your direct reports, peers, and supervisors,
- The respect, confidence, authority, and political capital that each party accumulates and to what end it is used,
- The working environment, role, and organizational culture,
- Your commitment to becoming a versatile manager.
While your core approach to management should remain relatively grounded, the strategies used in relationship management will vary.
This is a core step in professional development. Considering the cases below, this makes sense.
- In play, Video game characters begin with a base set of characteristics, evolving as the player devotes time and energy towards developing them.
- In life, We often act differently towards a child, a parent, or a sibling.
- In society, we acknowledge certain roles carry authority and treat those with it differently than those without.
But who we are remains relatively static within each phase of life. Consider also,
- Does your video game character always steal and cheat their way to the top or takes a righteous, honorable path? How does consistent action in either direction affect how your character is treated?
- Do you have friends who plan, or let others plan events and activities?
- Are political figures treated the same in democratic, authoritarian, and other political systems? Which type of mayor is more likely to have an open-door policy — one that forgoes a salary or one that restricts voting opportunities?
- Do religious figures who are considered “above” the general population behave differently than those who are considered equal or beneath?
The style you adopt and foster will inform and predict your strategic responses. It’s the core of who you are, the value system from which you operate, but viewed from a perspective outside oneself allows adjustment.
Strategies for Developing Rapport
Rapport development is crucial to any relationship, but especially at work. Rapport gains allies to turn to and allows you to rely on them. Building rapport leads to a mutually beneficial outcome. You can build rapport with others by choosing to employ a mix of the five strategies below.
I. Exhibit deference
Each 1:1 will give you an opportunity to say, “I have some things I want to talk about, but let’s start with what’s on your mind.” Similarly, each discussion to solve a problem may include: “I have an idea of how to accomplish this, but I want to hear what you think.” Be in control without being in control and give others an opportunity to be heard. The tools you use to implement this strategy will be useful in all of your relationships.
II. Approach new relationships with a sincere interest in the other party.
This is not the time to show off your skills or how much you know. Instead, ask questions to understand their goals and influences informing their decision-making processes.
Are they timid or bold? Do they have great ideas but are reluctant to speak up? Are they strong willed, collaborative, or focused on their own agenda? Do they seem interested in you?
III. Listen much more than you speak.
Gathering information is a core skill of great managers.
IV. Empathize with their struggles and concerns.
Aim not just to understand what drives them, but how it came to be.
V. Highlight their work to others.
As often as possible, highlight a team member’s win — whether it be that of a direct report, colleague, or manager. Celebrate others and the same kindness will be reflected back to you.
Strategies for Difficult Conversations
Difficult conversations with colleagues, direct reports, or superiors can arise from acute wrongs or chronic, negative patterns lacking signs of improvement.
Work environments — groups of people interacting as teammates guided only by cultural norms — are ripe for misunderstandings. How many football teams show up to a game having never practiced together?
Examples of difficult conversations include:
- poor work performance,
- choosing a consistently negative attitude,
- reviewing inappropriate comments or written communications.
Adopting a mix of the five strategies below may prove beneficial in your practice.
I. Always assume best intent/Give the benefit of the doubt.
Even with evidence, there are plenty of cases where cultural, religious, or societal differences may justify the individual’s action outside of the workplace. This approach will set you up to discern if the situation calls for redirection or a stronger response to impress the gravity of the situation should it persist. Performance improvement plans are a tool for managers in this situation.
II. Minimize surprises.
Preface the conversation with the topic or agenda to avoid shock. If you catch the individual off guard, the conversation is less likely to be productive as they begin in a defensive position.
III. Maintain neutrality.
A passive tone and demeanor is a signal that you’ve reserved judgement. This allows the individual to express themselves freely, knowing that you support them by default.
IV. Stay on topic and refrain from action.
These conversations are not the appropriate time to make commitments or promises. These come after you’ve taken time to reflect on the conversation.
Those facing potential punishment react by creating treatises. Generally, it will behoove you to spend some time to absorb new information and discover the nuances you missed in real-time.
V. Distinguish between perceived and actual wrongs.
In yourself, work to develop a buffer between events and your reaction to them. This threshold creates a space for you to learn your own patterns and perhaps, modify them. You will be working to allow greater belief systems to shine up through the layer of workplace culture. This produces confidence in you from senior leadership and keeps the team grounded.
Strategies for Defense
The term ‘defense’ is used to imply setting and maintaining boundaries. At work, there shouldn’t be an offensive force. Nevertheless, managers will often find themselves as a barrier between a group of resources and an slough of requests from the rest of the organization. Balancing requests from all directions is a necesary skill.
- new requests of your team from other managers or leadership,
- request to deliver in compressed time frames,
- supporting your team’s decisions.
You can employ a mix of the five strategies below to defend your boundaries.
I. Learn and use organizational levers.
When the team is at capacity, or rather, when demand exceeds resources, you may need to raise a concern that continuing will have negative implications such as increased cost, extended timelines, or reduction in employee morale.
II. Insituate using business lexicon.
AKA say it without saying it.
At capacity’, ‘push back’, ‘saturated’ all convey that barriers may prevent the succesful fulfillment of the request coming your team’s way.
This straddles the line of being labeled as ‘not a team player’, so it must be used sparingly. Rarely will the request dissipate entirely, rather, it allows time to arrange resources or, if not, accumulate higher praise for the team by executing until suboptimal conditions.
III. Focus on the intended outcome.
When a new request must make it through to your over-worked team, there are ways of ‘softening the blow’.
A highly successful approach is clearly explaining the ‘why’ behind your surperior’s request of the team. Remember that you’ll have more context than they do. You must convey that despite the high workload, this task is important. In fact, given the considerations, would they choose otherwise? Do they agree it is important? This route will help protect the image and impression of senior leadership.
IV. Employ empathy and sympathy for your colleagues.
Understand how life outside of work can influence your peers’ performance at work.
Without the power struggle phase in other heirarchical relationships, peers of the same level are closest to friendships. Close lateral relationships require understanding the context of an individual’s life outside of work.
V. Use time as a defensive tool.
Time will be your most versatile tool as a manager, especially in circumstances of defense. Time will blunt acute-ness and allow environmental influences to change and shape outcomes. Spreading action out over longer periods of time may be construed as a delay, so it is best to understand a stakeholder’s resistance to this particular strategy.
Do you have any strategies that have helped you navigate situations at work? What do you employ to achieve positive outcomes?