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)!

New Perspectives

The Next Level

The Next Level by Scott Eblin

In his book The Next Level, Scott Eblin warns against being too myopic, which can lead to silos in organizations or businesses. We all understand our organization or business, but often only from one seat or perspective.   I bring this up because of a conversation I had last week with one of our senior staff leaders in my organization, the National Trust. We were discussing ways in which we could help individuals on our team who become too closely identified with one program, their work in one city or region, or expertise in saving one type of historic resource. It reminded me of my own experience.

Several years ago I was working with an executive coach.  After receiving 360 degree feedback on my work, she asked to see my resume, which listed my various preservation jobs since I entered the field. Once she reviewed the resume, my coach had me undertake what I thought at the time was an unusual task.  I was to rewrite my vita without using the words “historic preservation” or without the name of any of the agencies or organizations where I had worked.  In other words, she wanted me to take a fresh perspective as to who I was and my capabilities at the professional level.  That led me to think about my eight-year stint as executive director of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, for instance, in terms of skills and accomplishments without relying on the jargon of my profession.  No “I led an effort to enact Virginia’s historic preservation tax credit” for this exercise.  Instead I had to talk about coordination of a network of supporters, communication of key concepts to the media, collaboration with partners to reach new audiences outside my professional field, and providing effective testimony before legislative committees.

It was an eye-opening experience. I had become so identified in my own mind with my preservation career, that I simply never put much thought into how the skills required to do my job translated into a broader world of possibilities.  This exercise, along with several others she had me do, forced me to look at my career, skills, and life with a new perspective.

When one becomes myopic, you don’t step back to think about the type of skills you may bring to other work where you could be a valuable team member. Similarly, you don’t think of areas where you may want to seek training to broaden your expertise. Let me encourage you, as you think about your work and what you bring to making a difference in this world, that you think bigger and try a fresh perspective every now and then. I suspect you will be surprised at what you find.

Have a great week.

More to come…