The Versatile Manager — Strategies to Manage Up, Down, and Laterally

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It’s easy to fall into the trap of focusing all of your energy and attention managing downwards. However, when we approach management as a skillset inclusive of lateral and upwards management, new strategies and approaches appear and offer benefits in all directions.

In this article, we’ll define management styles and characteristics opf directional interactions before exploring strategies and applied learnings for often-overlooked lateral and upwards management.

Management Styles

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.

Autocratic

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.

Democractic

With slightly more empathy, this style is closer to a group leader while:

  • Including feedback and viewpoints of others in the decision-making process,
  • First offers work as electives or opportunities before assignment,
  • Shares governing responsibilities by placing emphasis on participation.

Laissez-Faire

Often seen as more aloof than other styles, those taking a laissez-faire approach:

  • Make decisions only when they have become absolutely necessary,
  • May or may not be aware of direct report’s responsibilities or projects,
  • Will generally be reactive to an environment or absent altogether.

Do you see yourself in any of these categories? In any case, do you find yourself applying the same techniques downwards as you do laterally or upwards?

Now that we’ve defined management styles, let’s review each of the managerial directions.

Management Directions

Modern organizational structures are heirarchical and follow the concept of threes. Employees in a managerial role often have direct reports who report to them (downwards), other managers who work laterally to them (lateral), and someone to whom they report (upwards). Let’s start by reviewing the conditions and aspects of each direction.

Downwards

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,
  • Directly influences the employee’s wellbeing at work,
  • Indirectly influences the employee’s output,
  • Aligns with that of a sitter or teacher in their role,
  • Exercise judgement in manners of information disclose.

Lateral

Often conducted as more of a peer relationship, a manager will:

  • Have no official or authorized influence over another (informal or peer-granted influence may result from longevity, admiration, mentorship, driven by other social or cultural factors),
  • More freely complain or share certain information than in an interaction with a direct report,
  • Appear more friendly or combatatively than in other relationships — not too unlikely certain sibling interactions,
  • Compete for resources and attention of those more senior within the organization.

Upwards

Traditionally, in this relationship, the manager:

  • Yields little actual power or influence in the relationship,
  • Acts with increased deference than in other relationships,
  • Seeks to impress or gain praise and learn from their superior,
  • Aligns with that of an older child in matured familial parent/child relationships,
  • May seek to “dethrone” and builds political capital towards that end.

Do you exhibit any of this behavior in your work relationships? What do you think 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? Are they the same or different? If they’re different, why?

Directional Managerial Strategies

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Those around you will also be 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 exercises to inform your strategic approach to everyday and uniquely challenging situations. Remember that it will take time to develop the response you choose, versus exhibit the reaction that has always been. Take more of a pass/fail approach to each circumstance instead of overanalyzing every interaction.

The Difference Between Strategy and Style

The strategies you adopt in your downwards, adjacent, and upwards management style will be influenced by many factors, such as:

  • 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 you, or they accumulate or are granted, and to what for which it is all used,
  • The working environment, role, and organizational and departmental culture,
  • Your commitment to becoming a versatile manager.

This is to say that…

While your core approach to management should remain relatively grounded, the strategies you adopt will vary based on many factors.

Considering the cases below, this makes sense.

  • Many video games will have a character begin with a base set of characteristics that evolve over time as the player devotes time, energy, and other resources towards developing them.
  • In life, we often act differently towards a child, a parent, or a sibling.
  • In society, many acknowledge that certain roles are granted authority and we treat those with it differently than those without.

But who we are, aka our style, remains relatively static. 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 other characters in the game treat yours?
  • Can you identify those in your friend groups who sit back and always 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.

Strategies for Developing Rapport

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Rapport development is crucial to any relationship, but especially at work. Rapport gives you allies to turn to and allows you to rely on them. In turn, you’ll contribute to their success, too. Building rapport leads to a mutually beneficial outcome.

Examples include moving into a new role that will rely on new partnerships, a new superior or direct report joins the organization, or a new manager at the same level as you joins the team.

  1. Exhibit deference

Tools you use to implement this strategy will maintain usefulness throughout your relationships. In particular, each 1:1’s with direct reports will give you an opportunity to say, “I have some things to talk about, but let’s start with what’s on your mind.” Each problem discussion should consist of you saying, “I have an idea of how to accomplish this, but I want to hear what you think.” Try it in your next meeting!

2. 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 and use this time to understand the influences in their life experience that inform their decision-making processes and ideas.

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?

3. Listen much more than you speak.

4. Empathize with their struggles and concerns.

Aim not just to understand what drives them, but how it came to be so.

5. 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. When you raise a win of someone above you, it is often, but not exclusively, to those later or below you in the hierarchy.

Strategies for Difficult Conversations

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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 team-mates guided only by cultural norms — are ripe for misunderstandings. How many sports teams show up to the game having never practiced together? Even when they practice, every game will have a receiver go out for a pass and turn left while the qaurterback expected her to turn right. It happens.

Examples of difficult conversations include poor work performance, choosing a consistently negative attitude, reviewing inappropriate comments or written communications.

  1. Without overwhelming evidence, approach the individual having assumed best intent.

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 issue should it persist.

2. When possible, 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 will begin from a defensive position.

3. Maintain a neutral, non-aggressive tone and demeanor.

4. Refrain from making commitments or promises until you’ve taken time to reflect on the conversation.

It will not be uncommon for those in a position of facing potential punishment react by creating treatises. Generally, tt will behoove you to spend some time to let your brain work over the discussion and discover the nuances you missed in real-time.

5. Distinguish between perceived and actual wrongs.

Develop a sensitivity threshold to counter immediate reactions to learning of interactions. Learn to gauge the conditions that may justify a perception of harsh language. You will be working to allow larger belief systems shine up through the layer of workplace culture to keep yourself and teammates grounded.

Strategies for Defense

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The term ‘defense’ is used here to cover situations in which you are establishing your team’s responsibilities, your role level’s responsibilities, or your superior’s actions or requests. At work, there shouldn’t be an offensive force.

Examples include requests from other manager’s that your team take on responsibilities not associated with their role, justifying a new ask from your superior to your over-worked direct reports, accepting and explaining the actions of your direct report’s that may have caused issues elsewhere in the organization.

  1. Understand the available levers to blunt more requests of your direct reports.

When the team is at capacity, or rather, when demand exceeds resources, you may need to raise a concern that continuing with the request will have alternative implications such as increased cost, extended timelines, or reduction in employee morale.

2. Use terminlogy that implicitly conveys poor timing or availability for a new ask.

‘At capacity’, ‘push back’, ‘saturated’ all convey that barriers may prevent the succesful fulfillment of the request coming your team’s way. It could be a one-off request, such as to implement a new tool at the organization, or a new daily task, such as updating a reporting spreadsheet.

This straddles the line of being labeled as ‘not a team player’, so it must be used sparingly, also for effect. Rarely will the request dissipate, but you may be able to delay to arrange resources or, if not, accumulate higher praise for the team by executing until suboptimal conditions.

3. Learn to focus on outcomes and draw connections between the work and the goal.

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 and you must convey the understanding that despite the high workload, this task is important. In fact, given the considerations, would they choose otherwise? Do they agree it is important? If so, we must get it down. This route will help protect the image and impression of senior leadership.

4. Understand how personal lives and struggles can influence your peer’s performance at work.

Lateral managerial relationships will most often require the context of an individual’s life outside of work. The relationship between peers of the same level is closest to that of a friend where you are equals in the respective heirarchy. When a peer’s output seems off at work, it will not be uncommon to hear about it from multiple parties and your ability to help them take into account outside factors will alleviate their acute perception of any issues.

5. Use time as a defensive tool to soften blows.

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? Please reach out to discuss!

Building IT infrastructure and teams where there was none before. Fitness, wellness, and adventure enthusiast. Enagements at theitplan.com or dave-bour.com