Why actively positioning yourself as your manager’s ally, rather than reacting as an adversary, is good for your career.

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Managing upward is about manipulation and flattery. But not in a bad way.

“Why does my manager ask my opinion if he’s just going to disregard it?” a coaching client wondered out loud. “I’m tempted to just keep my ideas to myself from now on. Why should I bother speaking up if he’s not going to listen to me anyway?”

Oh yes, the sullen, silent approach.

“How can you strategically manipulate your manager?” I asked my client, after we agreed that stubborn silence is generally self-sabotaging and career-limiting. “What can you give him so you get better outcomes for yourself?”

I’m not talking about pounds of flesh. Assuming your manager is a human being, he or she has emotional needs, yearnings and soft spots. If you pay attention, you can meet (some) of those needs at low cost to yourself. 

My client explained that his boss is new to the organization and seems to want to make his mark, seems to be trying to appear decisive and effective while struggling up a learning curve. 

“I think he sees me as resistant, but he’s got these ideas we tried years ago,” my client complained. “I’ll point that out, but he disregards me. This is frustrating.”

“What could you do to appear less resistant?” I asked. (“Resistant” is not a reputation to cultivate in your career, in case you were wondering.)

“I guess I could slow down and ask more questions,” my client said. “I could try to find out more about what he’s trying to do and why before jumping in with my expertise.”

“If you ask questions to better understand what he’s trying to accomplish, you position yourself as his ally, rather than his adversary or competitor,” I agreed. “And we tend to listen to our allies.”

“Can you carefully sprinkle in a little flattery while you’re at it?” I asked.

I wasn’t recommending fawning, obsequious flattery; rather, recognizing and acknowledging things about your manager that you genuinely appreciate. There’s almost always something.

“People generally like it when their intelligence and contributions are appreciated,” I said.

My client said he could do that; he has been genuinely impressed by his manager’s insights but hasn’t said so given his general level of annoyance.

At our next coaching session, my client reported that one-on-one meetings with his manager seemed less tense.

“I think we’re laughing more,” my client said. “It’s more conversational and less of a reporting on my tasks.”

I asked what had changed — and changed so quickly.

“I started asking more questions,” my client said. “Rather than being the know-it-all, and telling my manager everything I know about the topic, I’ve been asking him for his perspective. I think he likes that.”

That sounds pretty manipulative. In a good way.