I still vividly recall an early managerial faux pax of mine. I had reviewed a paper written by an esteemed colleague that I found flawed in several ways, yet I feared confronting him with my assessment because of the difference in our organizational status at the time. So I passed the product unchanged up the line — error one — and compounded the felony by writing an accompanying note detailing the flaws I perceived so others would know what needed fixing. In short order the paper landed back on my desk with a rather pointed note from a rather senior executive suggesting that henceforth I should solve my own management problems, since he had plenty of his own.
The moral of this story is that managers do not generally get to pick which of their problems to solve. Your boss’s expectations are that you will step up to the management responsibility you have chosen to accept and will only pass along those issues that are clearly above your responsibility-level or required expertise.
In my experience, the temptation to ignore, or buck a problem sideways or up the management chain, is strongest when one of the following three reasons applies. Each of these reasons requires a little courage and some fundamental management skills.
First, when there is a gap — as was my dilemma above — in reputation, rank, or influence between you and other individuals involved. Managing up the influence or management chain is always fraught with the potential of running straight into a power-differential response, implying that you are out of your depth or way beyond you knowledge or pay grade. So be it. Such confrontations are part of your job and a fundamental requirement for representing the organizational standards and responsibilities managers are expected to uphold.
These situations demand you rely heavily upon your DIPLOMATIC skills. Forethought and a little rehearsal often helps shape phraseology that conveys your views without implying that you believe others are wrong, stupid, or incompetent. The point is to get others to objectively consider your point of view. While you may still experience a “you’re out of your depth” response, they grow less intimidating with experience.
Second, when there is the likelihood of some unpleasant emotional confrontations while engaging the problem. You need not be managing up to encounter emotional reactions, as these responses depend primarily upon personality characteristics and the degree to which others — superiors, colleagues, or subordinates — can not help but take personally potentially critical feedback.
As I have written elsewhere in these articles, these situations demand a great deal of your COMMUNICATION skills. It is especially important to converse in language that is non-personal, objective, and factual. It is equally important to listen carefully to the response you receive and to attempt to create a dialog about the matter at hand that allows for the achievement of some common ground of understanding. This also gets easier with experience.
Finally, when you are uncertain concerning what to do in a specific situation and are fearful that you may get this one wrong. As most managers will tell you, in some jobs this is almost a daily occurrence. But some situations are more fraught with peril than others.
More than either of the above conditions, pusillanimity in these situations is a certain ticket to failure over time. Managers simply have too many decisions to make in situations of unavoidable uncertainty to ignore or pass along decisions they are afraid to make.
The best managers face the challenge of uncertainty with a heavily reliance on three sources of support for the decisions they must make. (1) They consult with colleagues and others so as to educate themselves as thoroughly as possible before they must decide. (2) They learn to trust their instincts shaped by experience, tested over time. (3) They remind themselves often that the best decision they can make, is the best decision they can make, based on what they know, at the time they must make it.
All managers get some things wrong. But the best ones learn from their mistakes and survive. With survival and experience comes the courage a manager needs to address her or his problems, not ignore them or pass them along.