Monday Musings
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Surviving in a Golden Age of Sycophancy

Who knew, but apparently we are living in a golden age of sycophancy.  Flattery.  Brown-nosing.  By whatever name it goes by, we’re talking about sucking up.

Over a 40-year career, I’ve had a number of bosses.  On the exceptional-to-bad continuum, I’ve seen both ends, and a lot in between.  But I’ve been fortunate in that only one regularly sought out flattery from those who worked in the organization. Most good managers and senior executives see through obsequious behavior.  Colleagues see someone excessively playing up to a manager and roll their eyes (if they are charitable) or share their thoughts with others around the water cooler (if they are less than charitable).

No Flattery Zone

No Flattery Zone

There’s a better way:  learn how to manage up.

As I have suggested to my team at work, building a strong, professional relationship with your manager has nothing to do with sycophancy.  It has everything to do with doing your job and being the type of valued colleague who understands and supports a wider vision beyond one functional area or program.  Communication that assumes good intent is key. Strong staff at every level leverage their boss’s communications profile to help him/her do their job better. In the process, managers learn to speak more effectively on behalf of the agenda you and your team are pursuing. And I do want to acknowledge that there are “bad” bosses, who don’t respond to management (of any type) and who abuse their position of power.  When faced with that type of situation, a different response is necessary.

However, assuming you are working with a decent boss who wants you to succeed, here are three tips on managing up that I’ve learned over four decades which you may find helpful:

  • First, in your communications, position your colleagues and teams for success.  Excessive focus on your personal accomplishments is not only off-putting, but it really doesn’t help your boss, who is judged on the success of teams and projects, not individuals. We all succeed because a wide range of people support our work. Let your boss know that you understand this basic fact of life.
  • Second, if you want to keep your boss out of the details of your work, providing regular updates will give him/her a rising comfort level and confidence that the job is being handled. If s/he is always in the dark, they lose confidence in (and sleep over) your work.  Updates don’t always have to be face-to-face, and you should develop an understanding with your boss on how s/he likes to receive information.  It may be something as simple as a two sentence email as a FYI, that includes a “no need to reply” note.  If you do this consistently, your boss will probably let you know if the flow of information is appropriate. Also, when my bosses have reported to someone else (such as the CEO or the board of trustees), I have always let him/her know when I’m having a conversation or working with their boss. It is a simple courtesy, and it also ensures that when the CEO or trustee brings it up to my boss (as will often happen), s/he can speak from  a base of knowledge and not be blind-sided.
  • Finally, be a problem solver, not just a problem identifier. Think of what you are asking your boss to do (instead of sending an email asking your boss to essentially Google something for you.  That happens more than you would realize.)  Speak in terms of solutions and don’t work as if it is the job of your boss to fix your problems or do your work.  Even if your proposed solution is not ultimately adopted, your manager will appreciate that you have taken the time to think through approaches to handling the issue at hand.  I like the format of “what, so what, now what” that Scott Eblin suggests in his book The Next Level:
    • What:  What issue needs to be addressed or considered?
    • So what:  What are the implications of this issue that make it worthy of consideration?  Why am I bringing this to your level, as opposed to fixing it myself?
    • Now what:  What needs to be done next about this issue?  What action/support do I need from you for the proposed solution (which may range from an email response I’ve drafted, to an offer to make a call to a partner, to a fully formed plan)?  What milestones should you look for in terms of progress?

When an organization is flat, managers—by nature—have a very wide scope of responsibility.  Flattering them doesn’t accomplish much. But focusing on how you can help him/her do a better job is critical to success.  So don’t suck up.  Manage up!

Have a good week.

More to come…


P.S. – By the way, if you want to write and tell me this is the most helpful blog post you’ve ever received, I won’t charge it against your flattery account (he says with tongue planted firmly in his cheek)!

This entry was posted in: Monday Musings


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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