Managing Up Tips for Millennials | Managing Up Training and Tips

Managing up tips for millennials can often be a key to success in the corporate jungle.  Managing up doesn’t mean telling your boss what to do (not unless you’re looking for a quick exit).  It means taking the time to analyze your boss (or other senior leadership), their personality, work style, interests, etc. to determine how you can make their life easier and help them be successful.

As Millennials are often considered the greenest employees in the workplace, the concept of “managing up” can be an intimidating if not complicated one.  Millennials are often walking a delicate tightrope trying to balance maintaining humility and teachability while demonstrating leadership and being proactive.  So, developing specific techniques and best practices for managing up effectively can be tricky.  As a corporate trainer who has worked with hundreds of teams and individuals, I’m sharing a few of my favorite managing up tips for millennials.

Managing Up Tips for Millennials

Turn statements into questions for delicate topics

One of the trickiest scenarios for any employee (and moreso for millennials) is pushing back on a manager’s ideas, decisions, or recommendations.  While it obviously may not be appropriate to outright “overrule” your boss, it is important that you voice valid concerns when you have them.  You may have more detailed information, a unique perspective, or just a better idea, and the best employees will find a way to share that with their boss so they can make the best decision for the organization.  A great technique for doing this is turning your statement into a question.  For example, if your boss is recommending an expensive series of focus groups for market research, you might suggest alternate ideas by asking a pointed question like this… “Jim, I definitely see the value of conducting focus groups, but it looks like that could consume almost half our budget and if there are any glitches with the focus group schedule, costs could run higher.  I’m just wondering if incorporating a social media campaign with a survey and random prizes might provide a higher response rate with lower costs?  It’s just a thought….what do you think?”

Don’t hide your talents

While it’s true that newer employees usually have less experience and may be learning quite a bit during the first few years, it’s also true that as recent graduates (or new hires transitioning from other companies or industries), they also often have unique skills or perspectives that can be very valuable in the workplace.  If you think Prezi would be a better platform for the new sales materials or you could really enhance the website using the Java/Photoshop skills that you acquired during your last internship, speak up!  Managers need to best utilize their bench of talent, and they simply can’t do that if they don’t know who can do what!  So, don’t brag, but certainly speak up and volunteer to help out where your talents can help move the team forward.  Don’t necessarily wait to be asked to pitch in to help.

Propose new big ideas

A huge benefit of being new is having a fresh perspective.  Newer employees see everything with fresh eyes and that’s immensely valuable.  Part of the reason why companies often pay the big bucks to consulting firms to help them analyze their business is that they bring an objective, fresh perspective having gained best practices from a wide variety of companies.  Believe it or not, millennials often possess some of these same qualities.  It’s so easy for senior leaders to fall into the rut of doing things the same ways, using the same tools, etc. and that can lead to substandard results.  If you see a process that’s broken or can recommend a new sales template or application that worked well at your last internship/company, it’s an opportunity for you to not just make a recommendation but also show some leadership.

Use the 3 Magic Questions of Delegation

Let’s face it – all managers aren’t great at delegating…or communicating for that matter.  So, a key element of managing up is helping them clarify communications to ensure you’re on the same page (particularly when you’re being assigned a task).  As a corporate trainer I often teach leaders to ask these 3 magic questions of delegation when they’re assigning a new task:

  1. What is Your Understanding of the Task?
  2. What Will Be Your First Few Steps to Begin Work to Complete the Task?
  3. What Will the Final Deliverable Actually Look Like?

Unfortunately, most managers won’t ask those specific questions so get in the habit of answering them proactively when you’re being assigned a new task (particularly if you have any level of confusion about the task or goals).  For example, you might say something like this as you conclude a meeting where you’ve ben assigned a new task.

  1. Just to clarify, do you mind if I summarize my understanding of the task just to be sure I understood you correctly?
  2. Just to be sure I’m on the right track, I wanted to share my first few steps. First, I’m planning to get copies of the previous RFPs, then I’ll schedule meeting rooms for the interviews, then I’ll draft an email to send to last year’s respondents to invite them to an information session.  Does that sound good?
  3. I have a good idea of what you’re looking for with this business plan, but just to be sure I’m not missing anything and I’m giving you exactly what you want, could I email you a sample template to show you what I’m planning to include and exclude in the business plan?

Of course, it’s always important to take time to proactively clarify the who, what, why, when, where, and how of any assignment, but these 3 specific questions truly help avoid possible misunderstandings and most importantly help your boss get what they want the FIRST time!

Tips for Managing Up with a Difficult Boss


Dana Brownlee is author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches (to be published by Berrett-Koehler publishers January 2019).  President of Atlanta based Professionalism Matters, Inc., Dana is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In or Twitter @DanaBrownlee. 

What is Managing Up Really? | Managing Up Defined

Managing up has become a trendy buzzword at all levels of the corporate ecosystem.  Certainly, we all understand the concept of traditional top down management, but what exactly is managing up?

While there are few certainties in the field of management and leadership, one truth that I’ve found over decades of experience is that all managers are not strong, effective leaders.  In fact, truth be told, most have significant flaws. What does that look like in the workplace?  Well…they don’t always make the best decisions.  They miss things.  Sometimes, they’re the barrier to success on a project.  Managers typically aren’t closest to the day to day work so they don’t always understand the details or have the best information.  They also frequently don’t know what people are really thinking or how team members really feel about a particular process, issue, or task.  Like anyone else, they also sometimes don’t know what they don’t know (unconscious incompetence), so they can have huge blind spots.

While this laundry list of flaws may sound somewhat scary, it also sounds pretty normal because managers are after all human, right? Yes, but unfortunately we’re conditioned to treat them like they’re somehow all knowing and all powerful superheroes with perfect decision making skills.  While managers often possess certain strengths and advantages that enable them to make sound decisions, they also often possess certain disadvantages or weaknesses either due to their own personal failings or due to inherent disadvantages in holding a higher level position.  Sometimes leaders are actually handicapped by their ivory tower position.  They may not be as close to the customer or have their ear to the ground in terms of what staff really think or which processes are truly broken.  Guess what – they also may not be perfect.  They may have their own weaknesses or shortfalls, and be so swamped with broader responsibilities that they may not have the bandwidth to pour over the details before every decision.  As such, the truth is that for teams to operate at maximum performance levels, it’s not just important for managers to manage (down), but it’s also important for staff to continuously manage up!

My personal definition of “Managing Up”…

“A subordinate customizing their work style/behaviors to better suit their manager, taking steps to make their manager’s job easier, and/or proactively striving to optimize success for all.”

Put another way…managing up is taking things off your bosses’ plate and helping them be more effective!

What Does “Managing Up” Look Like?

The employee who actively “manages up” is one who often….

  • Anticipates problems and actively works to prevent them
  • Adjusts their style and approach to better fit their manager’s preferences
  • Are particularly flexible and willing to take on the “dog” projects that no one wants
  • Speak truth to power when necessary (being the one willing to tell the boss the ugly truth when others won’t)
  • Learns to navigate prickly or difficult boss personalities

If you’re looking at that list thinking that’s a tall order, it is!  Managing up isn’t easy, and that’s precisely why it is so important and so effective.  Most employees don’t take the time to actively manage up, so the ones who do truly stand out from the crowd.  So how do you begin to start “managing up”?

Managing Up Best Practices

  • Always propose a recommendation or two when asking your boss for help with a problem
  • Look for opportunities to “take things off their plate” – simple acts like volunteering to schedule meeting invites, book meeting rooms, develop presentation templates, conduct vendor research, etc. can produce huge time savings for your boss (and make you seem like an invaluable resource in the process)
  • Adjust your communication style to fit their preferences (e.g. if they prefer face to face, try to stop by their office more often to discuss the big picture, then just send a follow up email as needed with details)
  • Get in the habit of brainstorming/analyzing potential risks for new projects and proactively sharing the risk analysis (including recommended mitigation strategies and back up plans) with senior leadership
  • Share good news soon and bad news sooner
  • Look for opportunities to propose process changes or new innovations, and volunteer to help lead the resultant work (as appropriate)

Tips for Managing Up with Difficult Bosses

Dana Brownlee is author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches (to be published by Berrett-Koehler publishers January 2019).  President of Atlanta based Professionalism Matters, Inc., Dana is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In or Twitter @DanaBrownlee. 

Managing Up Tips: Learning Your Manager

Managing Up Tips: Learning Your Manager

As a corporate trainer and team development consultant, I’ve learned a few managing up tips along the way.  Certainly, a key element for success when managing up is the employee learning their manager inside and out so that they can customize their behavior and actions to match their individual preferences.  That may sound great, but the next logical question is what specifically should an employee learn about their manager in order to be poised to manage up successfully?

Are they a morning person or night owl?

This might sound simplistic but understanding their preferred time of day can make a huge difference in the success of day to day interactions.  Have you ever had someone bite your head off only to realize the hard way that they’re just not a morning person and if you want to successfully coexist with them you have to catch them after they’ve had their morning coffee.  While you can certainly figure out this morning/afternoon preference over time by trial and error, it’s so much more practical to just ask them up front.  You may be surprised by their answer, and they’ll probably be somewhat impressed that you’re taking the time to ask proactively.

What’s their preferred communication style?

This one is HUGE!!!!  We’ve all experienced miscommunications in the workplace and seen first hand the potential devastating consequences that can ensue when we’re talking past one another, misinterpreting tone, or falling victim to other common types of miscommunication.  Figuring out how your boss prefers to be communicated with is a huge step forward in your ability to work with them more effectively (and making you the type person they prefer to work with).  To better understand their communication style, you should ideally figure out the following about them:

  • What is their preferred communication mode?  Face to face, phone, email, text/IM?
  • Do they prefer to see/hear the bottom line up front, then details or the details first then build methodically towards a conclusion?
  • Are they more visual, auditory, or kinesthetic?
  • What is their attention span?  Do they prefer shorter meetings (even if you might need to have more frequent meetings) or a single longer meeting to get it all done at once?  Do they glaze over if they get a report more than a single page?
  • Do they prefer brief emails with white space and bulleted points?
  • Do they prefer direct or more nuanced language?

How do you get this valuable information?  More realistically, it’s learned through a combination of direct questioning (when there’s a relevant scenario ideally instead of just asking out of the blue), asking others who know them well, and simple observation.

What are their pet peeves/hot buttons?

Every boss has pet peeves, and they can vary significantly.  Some feel that showing up 5 minutes late to a meeting is a sign of complete disrespect while others feel there’s a natural 3-5 minute leeway for start times.  Some might value responsiveness over everything else and expect to get a response to every email the same day; others may be more laid back and prefer to receive a response when you have something significant to share.  Some bosses have more of a micro management tendency and want to be “in the weeds” so to speak while others are turned off by too much detail or too much involvement.  Definitely take time to figure out what types of behaviors set them off and do everything in your power to avoid them.

Which issues are their priorities?

Managers also vary quite a bit in terms of their personal priorities.  Are they focused on getting promoted, growing the product line, getting the project finished on time on budget, producing zero defects, developing a high performance team, ensuring team morale is high, managing work life balance, etc.? Figuring out what issues they care about most and helping them achieve their goals in that regard can be valuable.

These managing up tips can certainly poise an employee to adjust their behavior to better suit their manager.

For additional managing up tips, this video provides great tips and techniques for managing different types of difficult bosses.

Dana Brownlee is author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches (to be published by Berrett-Koehler publishers January 2019).  President of Atlanta based Professionalism Matters, Inc., Dana is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In or Twitter @DanaBrownlee.

Managing Up Mistakes to Avoid | Managing Up Training

Managing Up Mistakes to Avoid

While managing up is a critical skill for success, managing up mistakes can be career debilitating. First, let’s define what we mean by “managing up”.  As a corporate trainer and team development consultant, I define managing up as follows:

“A subordinate customizing their work style/behaviors to better suit their manager, taking steps to make their manager’s job easier, and/or proactively striving to optimize success for all.”

Obviously, managing up can have a very positive impact on business results when done effectively, but it could also have a very negative effect when executed poorly.  The key to managing up the right way is avoiding a few classic managing up mistakes.
When Managing Up, an Employee Should NOT…
  • Try to “take over”.  Employees must recognize that managing up isn’t taking over.  Instead, they must always respect their manager’s legitimate authority.  Managing up doesn’t mean swapping roles or telling your manager what to do.  Instead, it’s seeing your manager’s weaknesses and making helpful suggestions and recommendations to improve likelihood for success
  • Offer unsolicited advice.  Offering unsolicited advice could be construed as lecturing your boss (which never goes over well).  Instead, ask them if they’d like feedback on a particular issue or wait until asked. An alternate to offering unsolicited advice could be asking pointed questions.  For example, if you think the project should not use a particular vendor, your thought bubble might be “Dude, are you crazy? We’ll never make our due date if we use Vendor X.  They’re notorious for delays!”   Instead, you might say “Jim, I can definitely give them a call and get the ball rolling, but before I call I just wanted to check to see how much buffer time we have with our due date.  I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Vendor X has been late shipping product at least three times that I’m aware of so I want to be sure you’re comfortable with the fact that there could be delays.  What do you think?”
  • Focus on the boss’ weaknesses or personality quirks. Understanding your manager’s vulnerability areas or quirks is really important, but obsessing on them can be not only futile but counterproductive as well.  The reality is that you’re not their therapist or their parent so stay in your lane!  Focus instead on the task or goal at hand. For example, if your boss is unorganized, role model the desired behavior by offering to develop a structured plan instead of calling them out on their deficiencies.
  • Use the same approach with everyone.  A key element of managing up is learning to customize your behavior to best fit your manager’s preferences.  This might mean opting for early morning meetings with your boss if you know that’s their preference or avoiding your natural temptation to chit chat about the weekend for the first few minutes of a meeting if you know that they have more of a BLUF (bottom line up front) personality.

A huge element of managing up is learning to customize your behavior/techniques to best fit your boss’ personality.  Techniques or habits that might work well with one type boss might not with another.  This video provides valuable tips and techniques for managing four specific varieties of the “difficult boss”.

Dana Brownlee is author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches (to be published by Berrett-Koehler publishers January 2019).  President of Atlanta based Professionalism Matters, Inc., Dana is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She can be reached at Connect with her on Linked In or Twitter @DanaBrownlee. 

Team Building Activity | Team Building Facilitator Dana Brownlee

Team Building Activity

As a team retreat facilitator, I’m constantly working to identify new, innovative team building activities that are fun and engaging but also make a point.  Full disclosure admission….Even though I’m a corporate team retreat facilitator, I HATE those touchy feely team building activities that don’t seem to have a clear point or purpose. Sometimes, the point is to break up cliques on the team and/or enhance relationships (e.g. get to know each other better), and that’s fine, but it’s just important to me as a team retreat facilitator to understand the purpose for the retreat and identify (or customize) specific team building activities that support that purpose.

Potential Team Retreat Topics

Oftentimes teams identify other goals for their team retreat:

  • Conduct strategic planning
  • Clarify team mission/objectives
  • Identify metrics to support team objectives
  • Review key projects
  • Clarify team roles and responsibilities
  • Conduct training in a relevant area (e.g. project management, time management, working smarter, communication skills, improving meetings, etc.)
  • Analyze a pressing problem (conduct root cause analysis)
  • Analyze workflow processes
  • Enhance relationships and have fun!

Oftentimes, facilitators make the mistake of thinking they have to choose between conducting an activity that is work related and one that is fun.  The truth is that the best team building activities can be both?

Defining Team Mission

I often work with teams who want to either define their mission or review/refine it.  I typically caution against setting an expectation of defining a complete mission statement (from beginning to end) during a team retreat.  The truth is that the “word smithing” of mission statements can be both very important and time consuming and it can be counter productive (and overly ambitious) to assume it can (or should) be done in a single session.  More typically, the team retreat can be used to get a great “head start” by soliciting consensus on the key elements of the mission (including clarification of what might be considered out of scope).  The goal might be to conclude the retreat with one or more draft mission statements that will be assigned to one or more team members as an action item.  Their action item would be to develop a refined mission statement for review by the full team (at a later date).

Sample Team Building Activity | Defining Team Mission

As a team retreat facilitator, I often use an interactive team building activity as part of this Mission Definition agenda item.  The activity is conducted as follows:

  1. Give each group few rolls of pennies
  2. Ask them to design a team logo using the pennies
  3. Have each group present their logo and explain why they chose that design
  4. Ask the entire team to come up with a listing of key phrases they noticed several groups use.  These key phrases become elements for a potential mission statement.

For additional tips on designing an effective team retreat, watch this video.

Corporate Team Retreat Facilitator Shares Team Retreat Tips

Corporate Team Retreat Facilitator Shares Team Building Retreat Tips

As a corporate team retreat facilitator, I’ve facilitated many, many corporate team retreats, and I’ve also attended more than a few lackluster ones.  Here are a few of my favorite tips about common mistakes you want to avoid when planning your team retreat:

  1. Don’t make it boring!  This shouldn’t be just another long meeting.  It should feel like a retreat, so be sure the content is interesting and engaging.  If you have sections where you’re conducting “real work”, keep them short and try to find innovative ways to do it.  For example, when I work with teams who want to work on developing a mission statement, I create a competition.  Small groups take about 15 minutes to develop a logo for the team using pennies.  Then we review and discuss all the logos.  The discussion of similarities is a natural transition into a more traditional discussion of components of a mission statement.
  2. Get team members involved.   A great way to ensure that team members will leave feeling like the retreat was a great success is getting their input (and participation) during design and planning.  Consider surveying the team on potential topics, activities, logistics alternatives, etc.  Also consider asking team members to lead certain sections of the agenda.  You will have a more successful event if the team is actively involved in both preparation and execution.
  3. Begin with the end in mind.  To avoid conducting a team retreat that is scattered and unfocused, be sure your planning team gets clarity on the goals for the retreat.  When I work with clients to design team retreats, I ask them to complete this sentence…“I will consider this retreat a success if…”  Getting laser clarity early on is so important because it helps guide your selection of topics, activities, facilitators, etc.
  4. Include interactive activities that make a relevant point.  Be sure the day is packed with interactive, interesting activities that get participants involved.  Team members learn so much more by participating in an activity that makes an impression on them.  As a facilitator, I have a strong bias towards activities that actually make a point (e.g. communications best practices, the importance of embracing change, relationship building within the team, tips for managing tasks and projects more effectively, strategic thinking, benefits of teaming, etc.).  Here is an example of an interactive activity that I conduct with some teams:

For additional tips on designing an effective corporate team retreat, view this video:

Accountability Training – Getting Team Members to Complete Action Items

Accountability Training – How Do You Get Team Members to Complete Action Items?

The Problem:

Too many meeting leaders struggle with team members who don’t follow up on action items thereby slowing down the progress of the overall team.  Worse yet, this negative behavior can undermine the credibility of the meeting leader and spread throughout the rest of the team.  Before this happens to you, try a few of these techniques…

Try these techniques….

  • Document all action items on a flip chart or whiteboard so that they are visible to everyone
  • If you’re conducting a virtual meeting, you can use a virtual whiteboard to document actions (if not available, be sure to repeat them verbally for the scribe)
  • For each action item include the owner, task, and due date
  • Repeat the task wording to the owner and ask if he/she has questions or concerns
  • If the action item owner has concerns, elicit a volunteer to help them with the task
  • Ask the owner to suggest a due date (don’t just assign one)
  • If concerned, follow up with the action item owner a few days prior to the due date to check on progress
  • Suggest a ground rule that if an action item owner can’t complete an action item on time, he/she is expected to work with another team member to get it resolved by the due date
  • Establish an efficient action item management database/system (e.g. Eroom, Sharepoint, Online group, etc.)
  • If the action item owner arrives unprepared, ask them to still provide a read out to the team (don’t let them just privately provide you an excuse before the meeting)
  • Verbally review all action items at the end of the meeting
  • Include all action items in the meeting notes and ensure they are also pasted into the body of the meeting notes email

These videos provide additional insight into the tips and best practice that we share in our training workshops and keynote talks.


The Best Leadership Style – The Thoroughbred Leader

Best Practices for Identifying and Enhancing Your Leadership Style

Like millions of other Americans, I watched the tense ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations a few years back with many different reactions. Never in my lifetime did I expect to see the United States Congress not only fail to collaborate, but to become virtually gridlocked as a governing body.   News reports suggested that this organization’s inability to work together could literally plunge the country (and possibly the world) into an economic recession.  Political experts were often questioned about why it seemed that the governing body had become so gridlocked and unable to reach compromises as they’d obtained historically in years prior amidst ideological differences that have always existed.  When I put on my management consultant  hat, the constant uncompromising behavior of both  political parties, actually began to make some sense as political experts blamed the significant problem (albeit often under acknowledged) due to the simple fact that Congressional members simply don’t have the personal relationships that they once had.  They explained that over the past several years the culture of Congress has shifted in large part because many members don’t “live” in Washington D.C. with their families.  Instead, they typically fly in for just a few days immediately returning home for extended weekends to be with their families who remain back at home in their districts.  As a result, Congress members’ families  today don’t  really know each other and they don’t tend to socialize much or eat dinners together as they had regularly in previous years.  This void of relationship, experts reiterated over and over again, has led to a void of trust which has made it much more difficult to work towards consensus on much of anything.

When consulting for small businesses and corporations, I often teach what I call the universal law of relationship building.   Taking a step back and watching the actions of our U.S. Congress unfold, it became apparent to me that our leadership could use a lesson about this law.  The universal law of relationship building impacts trust, it determines leadership style, and it is truly necessary to the functionality of any organization,    And, here’s why:

Simple Truth #1

It’s hard to trust a person you don’t like and harder to like a person you don’t know.

Trust is absolutely key to building any strong relationship. It’s certainly key for building relationships where there is a need to work through conflicts and develop consensus. Why? Because it’s difficult to trust a person that you don’t really like, and likewise it’s hard to like a person that you don’t know.

KNOW ME   ———-  LIKE ME ————– TRUST ME

One may be tempted to think that relationship building while important for political adversaries charged with regularly negotiating legislative compromises may be more superfluous for the average everyday leader – FALSE!    Relationship building is absolutely critical for effective collaboration in virtually any organization – not just because it helps in negotiation situations or makes the workplace more palatable, but it truly does improve task effectiveness and efficiency.

If we accept this as true, one interesting question to consider is what leadership style is most effective to build a high trust organization.  Various factors can influence leadership style; however, one key determinant is the leader’s level of focus on “the work” (task) vs. their level of focus on “the people” (relationships) as it relates to their natural leadership style.   There are three distinct leadership styles that most leaders seem to embody – The Bull, The Lamb, and The Thoroughbred.  As consistently as I’ve noticed the three distinct styles, I’ve observed that the balanced “Thoroughbred” style reaps far superior results particularly over time.  With multigenerational workforces that are more diverse today than ever (and this trend is expected to only increase), leaders are “required” more and more to develop and project a style that truly balances focus on “the work” and “the people” in their day to day interactions, decisions, and communications.  The choice between the strong task master and the sensitive community builder is no longer a valid option…today’s workforce demands both qualities in the same leader….the Thoroughbred Leader!

How much is your style driven by a focus on work vs. people


The Bull                                                                 The Thoroughbred                                                The Lamb                                          


Task focus                                                               Balanced Focus                                             Relationship Focus



Let’s take a look at some general characteristics of each style:

  The Bull The Thoroughbred The Lamb
Strength Area IQ Both EQ
Staff Motivated by Fear Respect Affection
Communication tends to be Direct/Blunt Nuanced Sensitive
Conflict Management Style Bully or Avoid Problem Solver Doormat or Analysis Paralysis

The Bull

This type leader is much more comfortable focusing on work related tasks during day to day interactions with staff and others.  Some Bulls exemplify the old school task masters who simply walk around cracking the whip to get things done.  Others may be much more cerebral and intellectual personalities who are simply much more comfortable focusing on work specific issues than engaging in casual banter or other relationship building activities which they may view as less than comfortable.  Bulls can tend to be very directive, task oriented, and specific by nature – qualities that can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the circumstance,   The Bull can be effective in certain environments in the short term; however, the risks/costs typically quickly outweigh the benefits in most environments.  An instance when this style might be more effective is when the group is comprised of other similarly task driven individuals.  In this case, they may respond fairly well to one of “their own”.  In general however, this style has limited effectiveness in the short term and can be particularly ineffective longer term creating an environment based on fear, distrust, or even worse apathy.

Typical Benefits-

  • Emphasis on work details can provide needed task clarity and result in high productivity (particularly in the short term)
  • Exclusive focus on “the work” minimizes any concern about inappropriate “fraternizing” in the workplace.

Typical Risks-

  • Employees may not feel that you care about them as individuals which stifles trust and camaraderie.
  • A culture of fear may set in which typically results in low employee morale.

The Lamb

This type leader tends to focus primarily on building relationships, getting to know employees on a more personal level, and enhancing team morale.  The Lamb is quick to take the staff out for drinks after work and knows everyone by name, but they could also be perceived as a bit of a “pushover” or more of a peer than a true leader.  The danger with this type leader is that they may be too focused on winning friends and not focused enough on the team’s mission and tasks.  They may be best received by a small group of individuals with high need for relationship focus who truly need and appreciate significant personal attention and could be a particular turn off (maybe perceived as too “touchy feely”) for staff who are more motivated by task driven.

Typical Benefits-

  • Employee morale (particularly short term) can be quite high as the leader tends to focus on individual needs and employee satisfaction – let’s face it, these leaders are often perceived as much more fun and easy going.
  • This style encourages a culture of informality and team building which can be beneficial for the organization long term.

Typical Risks-

  • Employees may feel that this style “intrudes” on their personal life; they may be uncomfortable with the blurring of the line between personal and professional.
  • Leaders who build friendships with employees may find it difficult to manage conflict or discipline them as needed.
  • Organization may lack needed structure and attention to relevant tasks if there’s not enough focus in these areas. This can be a particular challenge for workplace environments struggling with particularly complex business models, organizational structures, or domain areas.

The Thoroughbred

The Thoroughbred leader tends to balance their focus on people development with their focus on the work  activities.   In my experience in most organizations this leadership style produces far superior results – developing teams and individuals that not only work well together but also maintain stronger focus on the team’s goals and tasks and ultimately produce better results.  The Thoroughbred style becomes even more necessary for those in higher levels of leadership because they tend to manage larger organizations with more heterogeneous mixes of employees with varying needs for focus on work and people.

Typical Benefits-

  • Morale tends to be high with employees having needed structure and task focus along with attention to relationships, employee development, and individual needs.
  • This leadership style creates a more balanced work environment which can inherently be much less stressful for employees.
  • This style tends to appeal to a broader range of employee needs. Like leaders some employees are more work focused while others are more people focused.  The Thoroughbred style often appeals to both sets of needs.  Also, the Thoroughbred leader (naturally maintaining dual focus on both) tends to shift focus towards either work or people focus as needed much more easily since their style is naturally more flexible in nature

Typical Risks-

  • This style could frustrate employees or organizational cultures with extreme needs on either the “work” or “people” end.

It’s important to acknowledge that this balanced style is much more than a simplistic Goldilocks approach of “not too hot/not too cold”.  Instead, it’s a truly balanced leadership approach where the leader…

  • Maintains focus on tasks, mission, goals, and addresses issues and conflicts head on as needed
  • Provides necessary structure to help employees understand their roles and what’s expected of them
  • Makes decisions and takes actions that demonstrate genuine concern for employees
  • Takes time to get to know each individual personally and develops relationships built on trust and respect.

The Thoroughbred leader truly infuses a focus on both people and work throughout their day to day interactions.  This is quite different from the Bull who may guiltily sprinkle in a few team building retreats or group lunches when they haven’t done them in awhile or the Lamb who brings in a consultant to generate process flowcharts or conduct root cause analysis sessions to address pressing workplace issues sporadically.  For the Thoroughbred leader, this mutual focus is natural and present throughout day to day activities.

If you’re scratching your head saying, “What’s wrong with focusing on work at work?” the answer is nothing.  Of course, we should work at work, but the question is what leadership style generates the most staff productivity/effectiveness and highest staff morale.  While the recommendation that leaders should focus just as much on “the people” as “the work” may sounds altruistic, the primary motivation isn’t really altruistic at all because the simple fact is that improved personal relationships builds organizational trust and typically improve task productivity and effectiveness significantly.

Simple Truth #2

People focus builds relationships and trust which in turn improves task productivity and effectiveness

Unfortunately, the inverse is true as well.  When a leader doesn’t focus enough on building individual personal connections, it doesn’t just damage those relationships; it oftentimes also ultimately negatively impacts task effectiveness.  Let’s examine a few typical examples of the how lacking relationships can negatively impact task/productivity….

  • Early in my career, I worked for a very task focused leader (nicknamed “techno weenie”) who surprised his staff with the purchase of an expensive coffee maker for their break room. He quickly noticed to his surprise that morale among his staff of nearly 200 seemed to decrease if anything with the presentation of the gift.  When I asked around about what people thought of the gesture, I was told that most people interpreted it as his not approving of people walking across the street to a popular coffee shop for a mid morning break and this was his solution.  Clearly, what was intended to be a gesture of appreciation for his employees was completely misinterpreted to be a punitive act.  This miscommunication happened in large part due to a void of personal connection between him and his staff.  Oftentimes, where there is little/poor relationship established, actions will be misinterpreted or assumed to have malevolent intentions.
  • A manager (Sara) asks an employee (Mark) to develop a business plan as part of a new project. As Sara talks, Mark nods and honestly feels confident about working on the task.  A few days later when Mark begins working on the business plan, he finds himself scratching his head not quite sure what she really meant by “business plan”.  He had vague ideas of what a business plan was (at least from his perspective), but he wasn’t exactly sure what she wanted included, whether it should be done in Word, Excel, or PPT, or how detailed it should be, etc.  Because he had very little relationship with Sara, he hesitated to ask her bluntly to explain her needs in more detail (in part because he didn’t want to seem like he didn’t understand her initially).  Instead, he asked another friend in the organization to help him interpret her direction and just took a stab at developing what he hoped she was looking for.

Just as most people are right handed or left handed, most leaders typically have a natural preference for leading by focusing on “the work” or “the people” so it’s perfectly natural for most leaders to be “Bulls” or “Lambs”.  Indeed, the true “Thoroughbred” is a rare find.  The benefits of this style are not just limited to the immediate, obvious ones.  Indeed, this dual focus on work and people has a powerful, synergistic impact as well:

Now that we understand the “magic” of the Thoroughbred  the question is…..can you develop this style?

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at

Tips for Managing a Difficult Boss | Managing Up Tips

Tips for Managing 4 Varieties of the Difficult Boss

As a corporate trainer and professional speaker, I speak on various topics (e.g. communications, meeting facilitation, team development, project management, etc.) to a variety of different audiences around the country and beyond.  Over the past few years I’ve noticed something that stops me in my tracks every time it happens.  Invariably, during my Q&A after my talk (irrespective of the talk topic) one of the first three questions is….”But what if the problem person/behavior is my boss???”  This insane consistency just reminds me that the idyllic inspirational supportive manager is in many ways the chupacabra of our time.  Instead, most of us find ourselves struggling to succeed in spite of our boss not because of our boss.  Sad, but all too often true.

In defense of bosses everywhere part of the problem may be that expectations are not always realistic.  I think that bosses are like doctors in many ways in that patients walk in with the completely erroneous assumption that just because someone has an MD behind their name, they’re all knowing and all powerful…this simply couldn’t be further from the truth.  There are great doctors and horrible doctors – the same is true for managers and executives.  Unfortunately, too many of us get stuck with the difficult boss.  The good news is that you really can manage up and not just succeed in spite of the difficult boss but maybe teach him/her a thing or two in the process and earn their respect!

Clearly, there are many permutations of the “difficult boss”; however, the following four types seem to appear with unsettling frequency.

The Tornado – “I hope you don’t mind me intimidating everyone with my overbearing nature at your team meetings…I’m just trying to help you speed things along.”

Sometimes our boss can become the “problem participant” in our meeting and that can be difficult to manage.  Try these meeting facilitation techniques if you find yourself in this situation:

  • Meet with your boss prior to the meeting and specifically discuss what you need from them in the session. Possibly write out talking points for them – many will appreciate it if it’s offered in the spirit of helping take one more thing off their plate (not telling them specifically what to say).  Ask them to withhold their opinion until others have weighed in to avoid tainting others’ input.
  • If you sense others may be intimidated by the boss’ opinion, suggest the group do a round robin and start at the opposite end of the table as the boss (so that their opinion comes near the end).
  • Stand up! Whenever you stand when everyone else is seated, you immediately regain control of the group (temporarily). Thank the boss for their input (even note it visibly) and redirect the conversation as needed.
  • Repeat their point and write it down – this may sound counterintuitive, but oftentimes someone will get on their soap box (and not get off it) because they don’t feel heard. When you repeat the point back to them and then write it down for all to see (on a flip chart or whiteboard), it reassures them that they have indeed been heard and immediately communicates an appreciation for their point.

The Wishful Thinker – “Would you please boil the ocean…and solve world peace too while you’re at it?”

We’ve all encountered the boss who expects you to achieve the impossible.  They somehow think you’ve got a magic wand tucked away in your cubicle and can move mountains.  When you encounter this boss, don’t fall into their haze of wishful thinking.  Instead, try these techniques.

  • Try to identify the specific mandatory requirements (and separate the “wants” from the “needs”). Sometimes they will ask for a Porsche when a skateboard will do.  Also, there may simply be a knowledge gap and they don’t realize that there is a quicker, easier way to get them what they really want.
  • Quantify anticipated risks. Instead of lying awake at night and wringing your hands thinking about risks associated with a particular project or tasks, put pen to paper and attempt to quantify them.  One simple formula for risk analysis is multiplying anticipated probability times estimated impact if the risk event occurs – resulting in a calculation of estimated severity.


Probability of rain (.25%) x Financial impact if it occurs ($10,000 for inside venue) = $2500 anticipated severity

If you calculate severity amounts for all anticipated risk events, you can easily estimate total risk for the project or task.  Keep in mind that these calculations can be quick/back of the envelope but having conducted some written risk analysis will position you well to bring the concerns to your boss.  Now when you approach him or her, you’re not whining.  Quite the contrary, you’re raising well documented concerns and providing them ample opportunity to change course, apply additional resources/funding, or even pull the plug on the project.  If you’re concerned about moving forward, ask them if they’re comfortable with that level of risk.  Finally, use this as an opportunity to ask for support in developing mitigation strategies and/or backup plans proactively (e.g. Jim, I know that if we lose our lead system architect, it will severely impact our timeline.  In an effort to be as proactive as possible, I’d like to find out from you what we can do in the event that that does happen?)  Even if they insist that you proceed without providing much support, having documented and communicated these risks not only provides you  some cya in the event that the task or project does implode but it also shows that you’ve done your homework and elevates your credibility with the boss.

  • Remember the triple constraints of cost, time, and quality/scope – when they change one element, it impacts the others. If there is a reduction in time, emphasize the impact on cost and scope.  (e.g. Jim, I understand that you now need to roll out the new release a month earlier than planned and we can do that, but there will be an impact on cost and scope.  I can either reduce the scope and hold off on some of the features until the next release or spend about $50K more to expedite things.  What is your preference?)
  • Push back if it’s not realistic…(g. Jim, I would be irresponsible if I didn’t tell you that I don’t think this can be accomplished with the level of quality we would expect. I know you would prefer that I be very honest now (before any time and money have been invested) rather than hear a laundry list of apologies after an unsuccessful project.  I’d really like to be positioned for success, and I honestly have real concerns here).

The Clueless Chameleon – I’m not exactly clear on what I’m looking for, but I’ll be sure to hold you responsible when I don’t get it…

Too often bosses may have a vague idea of what they want or worse than that they may keep changing their mind.  When this happens, employees are sent on wild goose chases trying to reach a loosely or poorly defined objective.  Don’t fall into that trap.  Try these best practices instead.

  • Clarify the effort early and often. Identify in scope items and out of scope items (out of scope is even more critical), tangible deliverables, timing expectations, budget restrictions, roles and responsibilities, known risks, and key stakeholders.
  • Identify their soap box issue early and emphasize WIIFT (What’s in it for them). If they don’t understand exactly what they want, ask them to explain their motivation/driving factor.  Oftentimes, execs have a soap box issue, predetermined bias, or hypothesis they want validated.  Try to find out what this is as soon as possible.
  • Ask your boss to prioritize scope/quality, time, and cost (good, fast, and cheap) for important tasks or projects. Find out which criteria is most important (relative to the others).  Hint: The answer is not all 3 J Think fast food – the focus is very intentionally fast and cheap.  Be clear which constraints are really driving the effort.
  • Explicitly ask how they will define success. ALWAYS ask your boss to finish this sentence when he/she is assigning an important new piece of work…I will consider this task/initiative/project a success if…

The Naked Emperor – I love the sound of my own voice in particular because my ideas are brilliant…NOT!

Nothing is more frustrating than a boss that only sees what they want to see and seems to be blind to reality (particularly when that reality may reflect poorly on them in some way).  This type of boss is particularly dangerous because their blind spots could certainly derail your success as well if you become too closely associated with them and they go down in flames.  Don’t blindly go along.  Try these techniques instead.

  • Ask for permission to be honest early on. It’s always difficult to tell the boss that their latest idea isn’t actually that great, but sometimes we need to tell them they have an “ugly baby” and spare everyone wasted time, effort, resources, etc.  “Laura, I know that you’re really depending on me to help steer the group towards success and I’m more than happy to do that.  I do however want to respect your authority so I thought I should ask you how you want me to handle it if I think we’re headed down the wrong path or if I disagree with one of your ideas or assumptions?”  In virtually all cases, the boss will ask for your candor (whether they really want it or not).  This action won’t be a panacea, but it can be very helpful when you later need to deliver a difficult message since they’ve requested candor.
  • Avoid allowing bad ideas to gain momentum. In project management there is a mantra – “Kill what’s ugly while it’s young” which essentially means that the time to kill a bad idea is at the outset not later on when time and resources have been expended.  Ask your boss to define criteria early on for evaluating important ideas before they are implemented.  Frame this within the context of wanting to ensure that they don’t waste time on ideas or activities that might eat up valuable time and money.
  • If and when you need to deliver bad news or give them a reality check, frame it as your giving them the best information possible and leave the ultimate decision to them. It also doesn’t hurt to include a bit of a tease about potential consequences to instill some healthy fear.  “Laura, I know that you’re very excited about moving to the new organizational structure, but I just feel like I’d be doing you a disservice as your right hand not to point out a few potential concerns.  Ultimately, it’s your decision of course and I respect that, but I just want you to have as much input/data as possible and since I’m a bit closer to the customer.  A few key customers have mentioned that they might walk if the new org structure impacts response times and I know that would be devastating for our group’s metrics so I just want you to know what I know if that’s helpful at all as you refine the structure.”
  • If you sense that theirs is a sinking ship, get off! At least build a broad network and develop a “plan B” in case they are demoted or removed from the organization.

Dana Brownlee is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant.  She is President of Professionalism Matters, Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm based in Atlanta, GA.  She can be reached at

Facilitation Tips for Managing Difficult Meeting Personalities

Managing Difficult Meeting Personalities

Manager Sherry Martin couldn’t stop thinking about her last team meeting as she walked down the hall towards her office.  Her problem in a nutshell boiled down to three really difficult personalities that continually recurred on her team.  These personalities were indeed a cancer not just infecting the team and its results but also spreading throughout the group and impacting the other team members as well.

Let’s explore these common dysfunctional personalities and how to effectively manage them.

The Dominator

We’ve all experienced “the dominator” in one way or another.  Some people tend to dominate discussion simply because they’re excited and over zealous.  These can actually be assets to the team if we can find appropriate approaches to harness and manage all that positive energy.  Unfortunately, most of us are more familiar with the other type of dominator – the overly aggressive, bullying personality that tramples on others’ comments and may attempt to hijack the meeting completely!  Sometimes, these dominators are overly negative (“That’ll never work here!”), and other times they just won’t let anyone else get a word in edgewise.  In either case, dominators can certainly sour not just the effectiveness of the meeting but also the morale of the team.

Techniques for effectively managing the dominator…

  • Thank the dominator for their feedback and ask for other’s input (e.g. “Steven, that’s an interesting idea. Let’s see if others have suggestions as well.”)
  • Reiterate the dominator’s comment, write it visibly for all to see, and then ask for other ideas to complete the list. (e.g.  “Steven, it sounds like you’re recommending that we use these three vendors as our short list…is that correct?  That’s a great suggestion.  Let’s compile a list of several suggestions, then discuss them all.  We’ll list your suggestion as “A” on the list.  I’d like to get at least three other suggestions from the team.  What do others think?”)
  • Instead of having the group respond to an issue verbally, ask them to take 2 minutes to jot down their idea, issue, or recommendations on a sticky note instead. Then ask each person to share one comment they wrote.
  • Suggest the group use the round robin technique (go around the room asking each person to share a comment) and start at the opposite end of the table from the dominator (e.g. “This is such an important issue that I want to be sure I’m getting everyone’s ideas. Let’s do a quick round robin starting with Jill…”)
  • Call on a few people you haven’t heard from (e.g. “Michael, what are your thoughts on this issue?”)
  • Take a break and solicit the dominator’s support offline (“Steven, you’ve brought up several key points. I’m hoping to get some of the other team members involved in the discussion to hear their ideas as well.  Some members of the group are not as assertive, but I want to be sure we hear from them.”)
  • Break the group into pairs or triads and let them discuss an issue in those smaller groups before initiating a large group discussion
  • Gain agreement with your team to use a physical object (e.g. sponge football) to balance discussion. The person holding the football has the floor, and they must toss it to someone else once they make their point.

The MultiTasker

Increasingly, we’re seeing more and more multitaskers in our meetings.   Aptly named, they’re the ones whose attention constantly darts between the meeting leader and any number of other tantalizing distractions (e.g. PDA, laptop, reading material, etc.).  Indeed, the multitasker is physically present but mentally elsewhere.

Techniques for effectively managing the MultiTasker…

  • Bring the issue up to the group during the first few team meetings and decide as a group how you want to handle the technology distractions. Options may include the following:
    • Using a “technology drop box” at the front of the meeting room and agreeing to drop in all phones, etc. prior to meeting start
    • Limiting meeting time to one hour to ensure participants aren’t away for too long
    • Agreeing on 15 minute technology breaks every hour
    • Participants bring a buddy to “cover” for them in case they have to step out for a call
  • Use facilitation techniques that keep participants actively engaged
    • Round robin
    • Active questioning
    • Affinity diagramming
    • Sub team work
    • Dot voting
  • Use a circular or U shape room setup that allows you to easily walk around (and near) violators quite easily
  • Agree on a mild punishment for texting, emailing, etc. during the meeting…one group used a PDA jar and any violators had to put in $5/violation. (Money was later used for team lunches)

The Rambler

The rambler can seriously derail a meeting with their circuitous, protracted, rambling commentary.  Oftentimes, the rambling strays into areas bearing little resemblance to the topic at hand.  The rambler can not only significantly extend the length of a meeting but also completely alter the meeting content

Techniques for effectively managing the Rambler…

  • Have a printed agenda (on a flip chart or whiteboard) in the room. When conversation strays off topic, stand up and point to the specific agenda topic to refocus the group.
  • Include timings for each section of the agenda so you can more easily focus the group on the time allotted for each discussion point. Possibly ask someone on the team to provide a 5 minute warning before the scheduled end time for each section of the agenda.
  • Simply, raise your hand and interrupt discussion to ask if the conversation is on topic and helping the group reach their goal for the meeting. (“Guys, allow me to step in for a moment to ask whether the vendor discussion is relevant for this particular section of the agenda?”)
  • Introduce the Parking Lot at the beginning of the meeting and announce that you’ll interrupt discussion to place any off topic discussion points on the parking lot to help keep the group on track.  (“Jill, I realize that you feel strongly about the inventory control issue, but I’m wondering if we should try to resolve that now or could we possibly place it on the parking lot?”)  Review all parking lot items at the close of the meeting and assign action items for each.
  • Assign someone on the team to act as the “rambler police” (use a badge if appropriate). This person is responsible for raising their hand anytime the discussion veers off topic.
  • Consider using the ELMO technique. ELMO = “Everybody, Let’s Move On!”  Whenever anyone in the group feels the group is rambling too much, they’re expected to pick up the ELMO doll (in the center of the table).

Remember that there are a variety of facilitation techniques at your disposal, and the techniques enable us to be assertive while preserving those critical relationships.

  • Don’t forget the power of questions. Questioning is a powerful way to deliver a difficult message.  Instead of saying, “John, I think we need to move on.  We don’t have time to continue discussing the vendor issues.” ­ask a question, “John, the vendor issues you raise are important points so I want to be sure to document them.   I’m also cognizant of our time constraints and wondering if this is an issue we should try to resolve in our meeting today or if we could possibly take it offline to resolve when we have more time?”
  • Use the “progressive discipline” approach. Try less assertive techniques before progressing to more assertive ones.  Many will respond to very mild interventions.
  • Act early! You want to send a very clear signal to the team that you will address counterproductive behavior quickly.  This is a great signal to send to the entire team    Also, it becomes MUCH more difficult to correct the behavior when it’s been left unchecked for awhile.  Err on the side of being stricter early on and more lenient later (instead of the opposite approach).
  • Act on behalf of the team. When you’re addressing an individual on the team about their behavior remember that you’re stepping in on behalf of the entire team.  The more you remember it’s not a situation of “you” vs. “them”, the easier the exchange will be.  Feel free to reinforce this perspective with your wording (e.g. “Jeff, I understand that you feel strongly about the problems with the inventory control process, and I want to ensure we address that issue.  You’ll recall that one of our ground rules was “Focus on the Solution, Not the Problem” so I just want to step in to be sure we respect that team ground rule.  With that in mind, what would you recommend to help fix this problem?”)