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Manage Up, Down, & Across For Career Success

As much as we would love to believe that the workplace is (or should be) a complete meritocracy, where just being great at our individual job is all that we need to succeed, reality tells a different story. The real (and inconvenient) truth is that the workplace is a social system—and in a social system, relationships matter—a lot.

Our ability to cultivate and manage effective workplace relationships is essential for career success. Positive, productive, and collaborative relationships create positive workplace experiences and results. Poor relationships produce poor results and experiences. At the end of the day, just being good at our job is not enough. We must deliver great work while simultaneously being good at managing our relationships—up, down, and across the organization.

The Power of Adapting

In a perfect world, our bosses and colleagues would adapt to us. They would identify and appreciate our unique qualities and personalities. They would align their preferences, workstyles, priorities, and personalities to ours. We could just roll into work every day being exactly who we are and find acceptance and success. But we don’t live in a perfect world. Our bosses and colleagues are human beings just like us. And as human beings, they bring their own way of thinking, acting, and interacting. They have different perspectives, personalities, styles, experiences, and ways of relating. When our preferences and personalities align – it can be magical. When they don’t, it can be frustrating.

As much as we hate to admit it, we can’t control or change other people. We can only change how we react and interact with them. Our colleagues aren’t going to change who they are or how they operate just because we would prefer them to be different. Her personality got her where she is today, his approach has been approved by the powers above him. They believe their communication style works. Your boss gets rewarded for their style of managing — even if it is annoying to you. This presents us with a choice — do we sit back and complain or develop active strategies to adapt? We can either sit back and let our frustration derail our career, or we can take an active role and adapt to the colleagues we actually have – not the ones we wish we had. In short, our adaptability becomes our superpower.

Embrace the Platinum Rule

The golden rule says we should treat others as we would like to be treated. This works great when we all want to be treated the same – meaning we all want and value the same type of interaction. But in the real world, especially in the workplace, people have different wants and needs and different ways of expressing those wants and needs. We all have different personalities, preferences, and pet peeves.

Some people prefer to think fast, talk fast, and act fast, while others prefer to take a more moderate, measured, and careful approach to work and communication. Some people are social and friendly at work and they like to build relationships and get to know their colleagues, while others exhibit less friendliness and may value relationships primarily as a vehicle to accomplish tasks. Some people are very assertive and direct about their opinions, wants, and needs while others are less assertive and more accommodating and solicitous of other’s ideas, opinions, needs, and wants. Some folks are impatient for results, others very patient. Some need tons of data to make decisions, while others may need little or no data. Some are very emotive and expressive, while others are more emotionally reserved and contained. And the list goes on.

Managing up, down, and across means embracing the Platinum Rule: Treat others as they want to be treated. This means developing flexibility in our interactions with others. When we understand their communication and collaboration preferences, we can adopt strategies to create a more robust relationships. When we are willing and able to adapt our behavior, we take responsibility for our choices, actions, and attitudes. It’s about taking charge of our own experience and being strategic in our interactions. It’s about not pointing the finger at others. It’s about exploring our options to see what we can do more of, less of, or differently. It’s about owning our contribution to the relationship and taking responsibility for making it work.

It Doesn’t have to be a Guessing Game

Figuring out what makes your colleagues tick doesn’t have to be a guessing game. One great technique for aligning communication and collaboration preferences is to create a Team SOP. This exercise can be be both enlightening and affirming. Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Schedule a team meeting—this should include your manager.

Step 2: Prior to the meeting, have each person provide three to five answers to the following questions:

    • The best ways to communicate with me…

    • The ways I like to receive feedback

    • Things I need…

    • Things I struggle with…

    • My hot buttons are…

    • Things I love…

    • What you can expect from me…

    • Other things to know about me…

Step 3: Have each person report out their SOP. Engage in conversation! Ask questions! Take the time to really get to know their preferred style of communicating and collaborating. 

We’re All in This Together

Better workplaces happen when we make them happen. Better relationships happen when we make them happen. If we want a better workplace experience, then we need to learn to be more effective in our relationships. When we take an active role in managing our workplace relationships, we take an active role in managing our careers, ourselves, and our experience.

If you and your team want support building a positive and productive workplace where everyone can succeed, learn more about our popular Managing Up session and check out Mary’s course on LinkedIn Learning!

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