Library Leadership

20. Managing Up: Strategies for Cultivating Effective Supervisor Relationships with Michelle Armstrong

How would you describe your relationship with the person to whom you report?  If yours is top-down, you may be at risk for feeling powerless, disengaged, and ultimately ineffective.

We all have someone we report to. On today’s show, you will get insights into their behaviors, needs, and expectations – and gain concrete actions to positively influence the relationship as we talk with Michelle Armstrong, the Associate Dean of the Scholarly Communications and Data Management Unit for Albertsons Library at Boise State University in Idaho. We get to hear about her work on,“ManagingUp: Strategies for Cultivating Effective Supervisor Relationships.”

Full Transcript

Nate Vineyard: [00:00:00]

This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management, from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created with program sites in Kansas, Utah, Oregon. Colorado, and South Dakota. And, by the Park City Library making film and podcasting possible, with green screen, and sound recording resources.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:25]

This is Adrian Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to library leadership podcast where we talk about libraries and leadership and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights in the profession.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:00:38]

How would you describe your relationship with the person to whom you report, if yours is top-down? You may be at risk for feeling powerless, disengaged, and ultimately ineffective. We all have someone we report to. On today’s show you, will get insights into their behaviors, needs, and expectations and gain concrete actions to positively influence the relationship.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:03]

Today we talk with Michelle Armstrong, the Associate Dean of the Scholarly Communications and Data Management Unit for Albertsons Library at Boise State University in Idaho. We get to hear from her about her work on Managing Up, Strategies for Cultivating Effective Supervisor Relationships.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:23]

Enjoy today’s show. Welcome, Michelle.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:01:30]

Hi. Thank you for having me here.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:01:33]

It’s a thrill. We’re here today to talk about managing up. So, thank you for that topic and thanks again for being here. Why is managing up so important? Let’s just jump right in.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:01:43]

Okay, I think there’s a couple of reasons that it’s really important. The first is, it’s just kind of a difficult relationship to navigate. There’s already a power differential between a supervisor and employee in that relationship. So, no matter how friendly you are, no matter how long you’ve been in that relationship when someone has authority over you there’s going to be a difference in terms of the amount of influence and impact that these individuals can have.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:02:21]

And, for the employee, it often feels like the stakes are a lot higher because they don’t have as much power in that relationship. It can feel risky sometimes. Then what I also find, and why this topic is so essential for people, is that when that relationship isn’t working well we’re just generally less happy. It makes it harder for us to enjoy our job. When we start to have that sense of dread coming to work, it colors our entire perception about the individual, the organization. It can have impacts on our health and well-being.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:03:00]

There’s a lot of ramifications when you don’t get along with your boss. The last reason that I think is really important, is that we don’t talk about this topic enough. There’s a real skill deficit, not just in the library profession, but I would say in pretty much all professions, that we think of ourselves as disempowered when we’re in that employee role. So, the more we can learn about this I think the more positive influence we can have on our organization.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:03:34]

We definitely could talk about this more. We know that if we’re in a top-down relationship we are at risk for some very destructive thoughts and feelings as we go into work each day so we definitely need to get to the bottom of this.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:03:47]

Absolutely. It can feel really difficult for the employee when they’re having that conflict. When you’re feeling disempowered it almost can have a freezing effect. Like, what can I possibly do? I’m just reacting today to the situation with anger or frustration or, negative emotions. When I started looking at this I was really looking for something that was empowering, proactive, and just put a positive spin on something that’s a challenge.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:04:22]

Sure. We all have someone we report to. We want this to be a good relationship. What is unique about people in this role, and how can we learn to work better with those we report to?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:04:35]

Yeah. Well, here’s the truth about our bosses, there’s nothing that’s particularly unique about them. They’re just people. What tends to be unique, when you’re looking at this relationship is our perspective and our perception of them. I like to point out some things that I feel like we as employees often forget. I say this with great humility because I’m constantly relearning the lessons that I had already thought I knew about managing up. But, I have to keep revisiting this for myself.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:05:12]

When we think about our bosses, there’s a couple of things that I tell people that we often forget, or we’re skewed, or we have an incomplete perspective about. The first one is that bosses have bosses. In an ideal world, it makes them perfectly empathetic and understanding of that. But, along with, hopefully, that kind of good insight there’s also the reality that they’re under pressure, as well. When we think of ourselves as employees who are feeling that pressure, they’re also feeling it.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:05:47]

I really don’t know anyone in the library world that doesn’t have some form of a boss, that’s just not the nature of our business. Everyone is experiencing that kind of potential for conflict, and pressure, and expectation.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:06:04]

Another really key important piece to remember about this is that our supervisors or bosses will often have very different and often shifting perspectives about what’s going on. They’re usually seeing the organization a little bit more broadly or thinking about it more broadly.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:06:26]

If we think about the annual evaluation – when someone is giving me my annual evaluation, from my perspective it’s all about me. When a supervisor is giving the annual evaluation it’s not only about that person, but it’s also about the needs of the organization, the long-term effect on how that evaluation process leads to a good workforce. We see things differently. And that, in and of itself, can cause conflict.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:06:57]

The last thing that I would say about this is that bosses are human beings, and they are just as susceptible to those human foibles as anyone is. If we think about times that we’re not at our best or when life causes a distraction or a conflict, or something that just takes my energy away from my responsibility as a manager, we’re just not performing at our best. Or, if we just make mistakes. Nobody likes to be caught forgetting something or giving misinformation, or just plain doing something wrong.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:07:48]

I’m not excusing hiding or any of that. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have expectations of our supervisors, but it does mean that they will not be perfect. So, we should have realistic, and appropriate, and reasonable expectations of everyone that we work within our organization.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:08:10]

We’re all human beings and we all have pressures. So, it’s really important for these relationships to be good. To help everyone involved empower the employee. Get the needs met of the supervisor. What are the benefits of managing up?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:08:27]

Yeah, I think that there are a lot of benefits. Not only for you as the employee, but also the organization. If you start to look at the research in this area you actually really start to see that there’s a lot of correlation. There’s a lot of work that’s been done about this relationship between the supervisor and employee.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:08:50]

What often happens is that your experience in the organization actually changes. You’re happier overall just because you perceive the experience of being an employee as better. Then the organization itself can actually become stronger and more productive because everybody in the organization is actually happier. There’s a lot of research around that correlation between a workforce that has that sense of self-advocacy and ability to be successful.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:09:36]

The last benefit I would say is the impact on the employees themselves, that are psychological capital, or optimism, or resilience. Our beliefs that we can succeed actually increases the better we are at being able to develop a positive relationship with our supervisor. We don’t completely eliminate that power differential between a supervisor and an employee. But, you gain a certain amount of positive power and positive influence over the relationship when you have these skills and you’re able to apply them in this kind of way.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:10:18]

Those are great reasons to engage in this kind of work. So, what we’re going to need now is methods. How, how do we do this?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:10:26]

Yeah, there’s a couple of key ones that I try to share with people. The first one is build trust. I think that’s really essential. You can do that in a couple of different ways. The first one is just learn about your supervisor’s leadership and management style.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:10:47]

If you think of yourself as a manager, you would be trying to understand how to help your employees be successful. If you’re a good manager, you are setting your folks up to get the job done the very best you can. You have to think, how do they work the best? Do they need some silence? Do they like teams? There’s lots of work around that.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:11:12]

Well, flip that over and think upwards in the organization. Take some time to think about how your supervisor likes to get things done. Are they just the highlights, just the headlines person? Or, do they like a lot of deep content? Consider what is it that they need in order to be successful? Do you have the capacity or the ability to help them with that?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:11:43]

The other thing that is really important along the same line is to think about and learn about your organization. Adopt that organizational citizenship. It’s very easy when we’re doing a job to look at our responsibility, especially if you’re feeling down about your work, or you’re frustrated with it. A lot of times we start to pull in and we’re like, I’m just not even going to bother anymore to care about everybody else and what’s going on.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:12:15]

I would say, that’s the wrong approach to take in most cases. If you look more broadly and start to say, what is the unique mission of our library? Who are we truly trying to serve, and how does my part contribute to that?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:12:29]

I find that having that broader perspective gives you purpose and motivation. Then the other thing about building trust is to think if you’re able to make things easier. Along with that, you can really look at your attitude, whether you’re trying to game the system. When we find ourselves feeling disempowered some of the reactionary behavior comes from, well I’m just going to… We don’t necessarily say that, but the reaction is somewhat undermining, sabotaging. We’re kind of taking away from the energy that gets built around a new project, or a new initiative, or the work that we’re trying to do.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:13:19]

If we really take the time and ask ourselves, are we treating others the very way that we want to be treated? And, we’re checking our attitude and we’re not trying to find some loopholes that we can get away with. That will really build trust. Your supervisor will know that you’re someone that they can count on.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:13:41]

Sure.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:13:43]

Yeah, I would say that’s a super important part of managing up. Then, the next one that I always try to encourage is to manage yourself. That can be something as simple as becoming self-aware, thinking about communication style in particular. I’m very direct. I’ve gotten myself into trouble a lot because of that quality. Sometimes it’s a great strength and I can cut through a lot of nonsense. Other times it’s insensitive, particularly when you’re trying to deliver a difficult message. So, being mindful of how you communicate can make a huge difference because then you’re taking control. You have control over that. No one else is controlling that for you. You have power there to change how you communicate.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:14:40]

The other thing that you can do when you’re managing yourself is positively influence your peers. When an organization starts to reach that toxic phase and people are whispering on the sides, and they’re having clique building. That’s not a good place to be. If you’re not contributing to like, wait a second, you’re telling me about this problem that you’re not having in direct conversation with that other person. Those kinds of behaviors that start to happen. It’s not good.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:15:20]

If you can start to call people out, give it a name. You said that this person was responsible for everything, and that’s not the truth. You’re scapegoating them. You’re not being fair. You’re expecting perfectionism instead of a reasonable appropriate level of performance. Giving it a name will often be that positive force for those around you.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:15:50]

Then the last thing about managing yourself that I would like to say is that a lot of times we are in management positions ourselves. So, if it’s a student employee, a volunteer, a permanent employee – taking the time to look at yourself is really important, because it gives you insights into that process of being a manager. You can start to see, oh, I think my boss is trying to accomplish this, or they were trying to give me information and I blew it off. You will find your knowledge of being a manager, the more you improve that, it improves your skills and it improves your work relationships. That’s really true.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:16:36]

That makes a lot of sense.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:16:38]

Yeah, it’s absolutely true. Then the last method that I wanted to offer to people is self-advocacy. I feel very, very strongly that people should care about, and develop their career plan. Do not wait for someone else to care about your career. You should be the one who cares the very most out of anyone. You will find good people and your supervisor will often, So, what do you really want to do? Do you have interests in things? What are your strengths? You can certainly engage in those conversations but if you haven’t done the work to say, am I truly happy here, or do I want something else? Am I satisfied with my salary? Do I have time left in my career that I could either make a lateral, or upward move? Have you sought out advice, not only from your supervisor but others?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:17:37]

 If you invest in your career you do start to feel more empowered because then you have options. Then along that idea of self-advocacy, think strategically. Not from that gaming the system kind of perspective that I was talking about earlier, but is there something that hasn’t been considered. Can you envision a new way of doing your job, a new schedule, a new process, and new service? The library world is all about services, so is there a way to reframe whatever is a problem in your current situation? Can you offer an alternative solution? And once again, that loops back around to that idea of trust.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:18:24]

If you’re thinking proactively of how to make things better, supervisors love that. Unless they’re just really micromanaging or have some other kind of deficit and perspective. They really love people that are thinking proactively and then are working collaboratively to implement those ideas. If it makes sense at that time.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:18:49]

Right.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:18:50]

Then there’s just one last thing I want to say in terms of methods that I think is an important caveat to add to this whole discussion. I always want people to be smart about anything that they believe is unethical, illegal, dangerous, or just mean. Sometimes people have good hearts and they really do want to make these relationships work. I’ve been trying all along to look at managing up from a positive perspective. But, there are times that behaviors can become abusive. I don’t want anyone to engage in magical thinking and believe, oh if I just try harder then it will all go away. That’s not true.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:19:40]

You need to get help in those situations. You need outside perspectives and guidance. If something truly is illegal, or something truly is over the line, then start to seek assistance. I just don’t want anyone being naive about that kind of relationship. I always feel around this topic, it’s important to have that caveat.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:20:08]

Good. This sounds like a practical application for managing up, building trust, making sure you’re not working the system, you’re helping meet needs, you’re managing yourself, and you’re working with colleagues in a positive way to get them to also engage. And, you’re a self-advocate, looking at your career and coming up with solutions that help everyone. Can you share any success stories about how people have applied managing up?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:20:33]

Yeah, I don’t feel like I can give a specific story because I might be divulging, but I work with some great people that are managing me well. I can tell you, I have some staff that are absolute pros. What I will say about this if you look around and you start to see a really good working relationship between a supervisor or an employee and it’s not just based on personal friendship, although that’s a reality in the workplace. But, if it’s truly based on those good qualities that make work relationships productive, you’re often going to see a lot of trust, a lot of collaboration, a respect for the different responsibilities and authority that each has. And, then just the willingness to work at it when the relationship isn’t great.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:21:27]

The times that I have found in my own situation, where I felt like I was successful in managing up is when I took a step back. This actually happened yesterday. I was in a situation where I was starting to feel some tension and I had to mentally pause and say, wait a second, stop. It’s not about you, it’s about the situation. Where are they coming from?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:21:55]

Just having that that presence of mind to get out of the emotion in the moment was really important. Like I said, I’m constantly re-learning that. I’m constantly failing and trying again. That’s the truth. But, it’s a good process to go through.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:22:15]

It is expected for all of us which is why there are these tools and they’re so valuable. And, when this is done well, we can all feel it. It just clicks. Things get done. There’s positive interactions. So, I’m just grateful that you’re sharing all of these tools with us. As you’ve pulled this work together you’ve probably come across a lot of fantastic literature and books. Do you have any favorites you’d like to share?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:22:40]

I always like anything from Harvard Business Review, and there’s actually one called Guide to Managing Up and Across. I think their work typically is well grounded in research and practical knowledge. So, if you’re just looking to start somewhere, I say this on a lot of different management topics: coaching; and supervising; those kinds of things. I often will start there and then expand out. The one thing that I would say when you’re looking at the practical literature, the books, the business books out there I would try to stay away from anything that goes into the toxic boss, or bad boss, or the dysfunctional kind of stuff. There can be useful content about that but, if you’re taking the perspective that your supervisor’s just a horrible person then you’re not going to go very far.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:23:41]

You probably really need to leave the organization if that’s where you are. As you expand beyond the basics that Harvard Business Review gives, look at things that are empowering and you can be influential. That’s really great.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:23:59]

The other things that I found fascinating when I started to look really deeply into this, there’s a lot of literature, a lot of research around this topic. I’ll just give you a couple of keywords where you can go and do some of your own literature reviews, but there’s something called LMX, Leader-Member Exchange.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:24:22]

That really talks about relationship from a scientific analysis perspective. The people that are doing research in that area, they’re really examining the specific components that contribute to that positive relationship. That’s part of why I really focused on trust because that was a big thing that was coming out in the literature. And then, if you follow that line of research you’ll start to see some other keywords like followership, organizational citizenship, and employee voice.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:24:57]

There’s a lot of interesting literature regarding employee voice. What is a suppressing quality? When do people keep their mouths shut and just let the organization die? Why does that happen, Because that’s awful. What can you do to change that dynamic? I find that literature just, really fascinating.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:25:20]

Great resources. And, I like that you take this into a positive realm, as well. Anything else you’d like to share with us?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:25:28]

I would just say I have to always acknowledge that managing up can be hard and humbling, especially when you start to examine your own management practices. My position changed in this past year. I’ve had to really look at my weaknesses. I had done quite a bit of self-analysis, previously. But, when you find yourself in new situations and you really care about the work, you can go, wow, I’m not where I need to be. I need to work harder at this. I mean to keep trying to figure out how I can engage effectively with people.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:26:14]

It’s not a bad thing to be humbled at times. It’s not a bad thing to see your weaknesses. If anything, it means that you care deeply. But, just know you have to work at it. You have to practice. Like you had said, you have to be mindful of these things.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:26:30]

I think that’s OK. I think that this is a process. Like I said, over time you can improve, and if you keep practicing these different techniques, I think, you’ll find that you will improve.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:26:46]

Absolutely, self-development is a lifelong process. We’re never going to be perfect, and it’s so valuable to libraries as we help our communities to develop, as we help each other to develop. We’re all in it together.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:26:59]

That’s exactly what I have been telling myself. I can’t be complacent. I have to keep figuring out if I’m the best employee that I possibly can be and that the organization needs. I truly believe that the rest of our library needs me to be as good as I can be. And, when I start to realize, oh, I have a weakness in an area, or I’m not performing as well as I could, or I haven’t balanced my schedule effectively. I need to have a serious conversation with myself and try to figure it out, knowing that I’m going to fail. I’m going to have to try again but, I have to keep working at it.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:27:37]

It’s worth it for libraries. And, that’s where I want to close. What does being a librarian mean to you personally?

Michelle Armstrong: [00:27:44]

I think it’s about service. I think it’s about human empowerment and creativity. I feel like in my library, I see all of those components at play.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:27:58]

 I’m really proud of everyone that we have here and that we are known throughout our campus for our service. We’ve really distinguished ourselves and that’s just because a lot of people have taken time to do their job well and interact with people effectively. I think that’s true in most libraries. I think you see people that understand we’re serving human beings, and that is for their empowerment.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:28:30]

This whole topic is about how you can become empowered as an employee, but we as librarians – we’re helping people get the information that they need in order to do what they want to do. That’s essential to our society. That’s critical. And, the last thing that I said about the creativity… we are at such an interesting point in the library profession – everything is getting flipped upside-down. We’ve had so many disruptive technologies both good and bad. Our world has changed, the way we access information has changed, the way we see ourselves as librarians has changed. And, so getting to be creative? That’s wonderful.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:29:20]

I love that element in our libraries. I love seeing all the new things that are coming out of the library world. I think, no matter what type of library you’re looking at, you’re seeing some kind of interesting innovation, new take on what it means to be a librarian, what it means to offer library services. And, that makes this whole profession just incredibly exciting.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:29:46]

It’s incredibly exciting. And, I see everyone dealing with change and wanting to do their best to provide fabulous services for our communities. So, thank you for these tools. And, I’m proud of everyone too, who’s willing to engage in this work. Thank you for giving us this fantastic information to help us do just that.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:30:06]

It’s been incredible to talk with you today on the show, Michelle. I appreciate your positivity and the wonderful information you’ve given us.

Michelle Armstrong: [00:30:14]

Well, of course, and I appreciate the opportunity to talk about this. I definitely enjoy this topic so, thank you.

Adrian Herrick Juarez: [00:30:21]

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host. Adrian Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at library libraryleadershippodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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