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Courageous Communication: The Trick to Managing Up

Posted September 29, 2014 by Lindsay Bosch in On the Ladder


Everyone (for the most part) has a boss, or is a boss, oftentimes both. Even those of us who work well with our bosses can attest to times where things are not flowing correctly. I recently went to a lecture hosted by Elizabeth Finlayson, The Non-Profit Coach, who weighed in on the crises of communication that can spring up between managers and their employees.

Where does this employee / boss conflict come from? Finlayson’s list of potential conflicts will be recognizable to anyone in an office environment. She notes that common problems may include: power differentials, different perspectives, different styles, different priorities, attitudes to authority, different expectations, generational differences, and ownership conflicts.

I was struck by the ways that these issues describe communication issues of all kinds. These conflicts are not only found in the office, but also between romantic partners, families and friends.

Finlayson offers 4 concrete steps to work better with your boss:

  1. Discuss Goals and Clarify Responsibilities –Set regular meetings to discuss goals. To minimize conflict an employee should consider their boss’s goals as well as their own goals to be sure these are aligned.
  2. Keep Clarifying! – Don’t take information at face-value, especially if responsibilities are unclear. As a project or goal progresses and evolves additional clarification may be required to keep everyone on the same page.
  3. Don’t Suppress Your Opinion – Finlayson notes that “Managing-Up” is not about being simply agreeable. Bosses need (and often appreciate) someone that voices an alternate opinion and offers additional solutions. She cautions that conflict will not often go away on its own.
  4. Consider how information is delivered – Everyone processes information differently. Understand how your own boss processes information best. If he likes to be able to consider it by himself, provide information in written form. If she likes to be able to ask questions, present information in person.

At the end of the night Finlayson was asked her one best tip for managing up.

Courageous Communication,” she said without hesitation.

urlShe went on to explain that to manage your relationship with your boss (or really anyone) you must strive to communicate courageously and effectively. Finlayson urged the crowd to engage their bosses directly over conflicts that occur, even when it is hard. Quoting the book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High (2011), Finlayson noted that every conversation draws from a “pool of shared meaning”. Your goal as a good communicator is simply to add to this pool. Being “on the same page” involves telling the truth but also recognizing the truth and information that others bring with them. When we communicate courageously, we share our story, and then ask for other’s story in turn. We can be protected in difficult conversations if we “talk tentatively,” telling the story as we see it, but acknowledging that others may have different perspectives.

About the Author

Lindsay Bosch

Lindsay Bosch is an arts and nonprofit manager who has worked in cultural institutions for over decade including the American Library Association, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Film Festival. Lindsay is interested in the self-driven (and often self taught) trajectory of women’s careers in nonprofits and writes about issues related to leadership, branding and work culture. Lindsay holds a Bachelors degree in Film and Media from Northwestern Univ. and a Masters in Art History, Theory and Criticism from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is the coauthor of the art history textbook Icons of Beauty: Art, Culture and the Image of Women.