John hates his president. Things were fantastic when he became a first time athletics director just a few years ago. The job had it all – great school, beautiful campus, program with loads of potential, and best of all a young president who “just gets it”. But then that savvy young president got recruited to a bigger university, and the board decided to replace him with an old school bureaucrat who’s so clueless about sports he might as well have thought a quarterback was an income tax refund. Now John is stuck managing a multi-million dollar operation where he has to weigh trying to get every minor decision approved by his president against how much of his own sanity he’ll have to give up in the process.
John’s situation isn’t just a common one in college athletics – it is the situation. There exists no other industry in the world in which someone is tasked with managing a massive operation while often having to report to someone that has absolutely no practical experience or understanding in that subject matter area. And that doesn’t just go for athletic directors and presidents either. It’s no different than situations in which a coach struggles to deal with an athletic administrator who has never coached a team or recruited an athlete in his life.
Almost half a century ago, management scientists formulated The Peter Principle, and in doing so provided an explanation for the root cause of almost every organizational problem in college athletics. Quite simply, the Peter Principle states that everyone in an organization will get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence, at which point they will stop being promoted. Thus logic holds that given enough time, every position in an organization will be occupied by someone who can’t do their job.
Before we continue, it is important for you to take a moment to recognize that The Peter Principle is real and it exists in all industries and organizations. Furthermore, as much as you might try to convince yourself otherwise, you are not immune to it. That being said, it is not impossible to learn how to overcome our own incompetencies (that’s why you’re reading this after all) but we’re not here to discuss that today. Rather we want to learn how to rise above other people’s incompetencies. How do we deal with a president who doesn’t know the first thing about the complexities of running a college athletics program? How do we persuade an athletics director that leading dozens of student-athletes of questionable maturity is much easier said than done?
The answer to these questions depends largely on the type of person your superior really is. The concept of managing up in an organization is less about how we convey ourselves and much more about the person we are actually trying to communicate to. For now, we will focus on three of the most common types of leaders we struggle with on a daily basis:
The Leader Who Thinks They’re Smarter Than Everyone Else
One of the most frustrating aspects of The Peter Principle is self-ignorance. While we all work hard to move up in our careers, eventually people reach a ceiling in which they fail to recognize their own shortcomings. Yet because of the power they yield, they wrongly assume that they know everything there is to know about a situation. They become caught up in their own illusions of superiority and importance and then assume that without them, their organizations would devolve into chaos.
The individual described above is not inherently a bad person, nor are they necessarily incompetent. Rather they are simply unwilling to trust those around them to do their jobs because they can’t get past their own biased presumptions of how things should be done. But at the core of this bias lays our solution. Know-it-all leaders will almost always challenge or outright dismiss their subordinate’s ideas. Therefore the key to seeing our own ideas and requests realized — like getting our president to sign off on those added departmental expenses — is to feed them the idea in pieces so they put it together themselves. The sooner you can get over your own ego, the sooner you can start formulating ways of generating half-ready concepts that will be just enough for your boss to come up with the solution themselves. As Seth Godin once put it, “people almost never believe what you tell them, they sometimes believe what you show them, but they always believe what they tell themselves.”
In conjunction with seeding ideas, the more traditional approach to dealing with know-it-all leaders is the utilization of rational persuasion – using facts, logic and reason to convince someone to do something. In theory, rational persuasion is the only direct way to formally convince someone of an idea if that individual is in a superior position to your own. That being said, while the presentation of factual evidence may create a compelling argument to the average person, its usefulness becomes significantly diminished when applied to particularly stubborn individuals. Thus using one or both techniques in conjunction still requires a good deal of finesse and a great deal of practice on your behalf.
According to Joe D’Antonio, Commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, “The task of persuading someone to engage in any type of conduct is never an easy one, and it only becomes harder when that person holds your job security in their hands. The key is never let your frustration move from the professional realm into the personal; nobody ever said you have to be friends with your boss. Instead, focus on the bigger picture and actively try to build professional trust by executing on the things within your realm of control. You may never succeed at changing your boss’s mentality, but that doesn’t mean you can’t succeed at your job.”
The Leader Who Can’t Make A Decision If Their Life Depended On It
We’ve all been there. Time is of the essence and with every minute that passes the chances of success plummet. And yet the person with the authority can’t make a decision. They flip and flop, paralyzed by uncertainty and fear. Organizations can recover from bad decisions, but the indecisive leader spells almost certain doom.
While the above scenario likely causes flashbacks of immense frustration, the good news is that convincing your hopelessly indecisive boss to make a decision on a pressing issue is not as difficult as you may believe. The key is to spend more time defining the issue and less about persuading them to make the decision. Much like in our previous scenario, the key is to break things down into the smallest common denominator. By taking the time to carefully analyze the issue, with any luck we can break what is an overwhelmingly large decision into a series of far more manageable smaller ones. Your ultimate goal is to force your boss into some sort of action, however small, so as to allow you to move the dial forward.
“Whenever you’re dealing with someone who is struggling to make a decision, you have to move the person’s attention away from the big picture and instead focus on each component of the problem one at a time,” explains D’Antonio. “In the legal profession, there is a concept called totality of the circumstances, which in essence states that there is no single deciding factor in any situation, and you must consider all the facts, the context, and only then draw a conclusion from the whole picture. The same concepts can be applied to any area of business or life — decisions should only be made after one has pieced together the real problem from its individualized elements.”
The Leader Who Thinks You’re Out To Get Them
Arguably the most challenging type of boss to deal with is one who dislikes you because you are intelligent, confident, and popular and their insecurities drive them to feel threatened by your presence. So rather than helping you succeed at your job, instead they undermine you just often enough to send a reminder on who really runs the show. This dynamic is particularly prevalent on university campuses, in which athletic accomplishments can have significantly more visibility than academic accolades, and especially when an athletic director may feel threatened by the growing prominence of one of his head coaches.
Insecurity in the workplace is primarily driven by two components – pressure and/or lack of self-esteem. When we are under stress — due to say a difficult decision we must make — we tend to become highly defensive in our behavior towards others. Such triggers are easy to spot because these types of situations are almost always contemporaneous with erratic behavior. If the relationship you have with your boss is generally a friendly one, but there are times in which you appear to be enemy No. 1, there’s a good chance that you yourself are not the root cause of the change in the behavior. In such situations, you should do everything in your power to avoid aggressive behavior which will only make your boss feel even more insecure. Instead, focus on being as transparent in your communication and actions as possible. If your boss knows you are acting collaboratively, he is far less likely to perceive you as a threat.
Alternatively, if your superior’s insecurities are driven by their lack of self-esteem, you should do everything in your power to allow them to focus on their strengths. That means you should be making an active effort to put out fires, fill in gaps, and anticipate situations in which their insecurity might be triggered. That being said, the worst thing you can do in such situations is act less capable. Pretending to be less smart might placate your boss, but it’s going to hurt your reputation with the organization and handicap your opportunities for future career growth. Instead, helping your boss find solutions to the problem and sharing in the success will help both of you come out ahead.
Above all, it’s important to remember that no matter what you do or say, it’s your boss and your boss only that has the power to change their habits. Thus no matter what approach we use in managing up, we must always seek to understand the problem our superior is trying to solve and become an indispensable solution to that problem. We must take into account their goals, strengths, weaknesses, and appreciate the organizational pressures they are facing.
Help them help you.