The Neuroscience of Managing Up: Rocking the Boat Mindfully

user Jonathan Rosenfeld

Don’t rock the boat. Go along to get along. Stay in your lane. Wait your turn.

Sage advice, if you’re looking for a long and stable career, but heeding it is not likely to put you on the fast track to the top. To be successful in a corporate environment is a balancing act—you need your manager to be your advocate, but you also must assert yourself, take initiative, and be prepared to take some calculated risks. But if you do it the wrong way, at the wrong time or with the wrong person, you might simply be experienced as entitled and annoying. And that is a sure path towards failure.

There will always be some tension between aspirational actions and apprehension for potential negative consequences. And you always have a choice. You can empathetically manage up, and take risks in measured, thoughtful ways. Or you can fall back on conservative strategies, engaging in fear management, which might provide short term security, but likely, long term professional disappointment.

Professional progress in almost any work system or endeavor usually requires that those with more power and influence than you become invested in your success. Healthy, dynamic organizations are characterized by continuous internal development of talent. So, what can you do, to best position yourself to get the support and attention you need to optimally accelerate your professional growth? How can you position yourself to be one of those individuals who leaders place their bets on?

Smart calculated risk might mean speaking up in an intimidating setting or putting forward a proposal on strategy or tactics at a high stakes meeting. And it might mean sharing an unpopular viewpoint. People frequently choose not to speak up, concerned that the very act of proposing an alternative opinion might seem impertinent or, done poorly, leave them looking foolish or weak on domain expertise where they are expected to be strong. But what about your responsibility to your company and colleagues? Don’t speak up just to hear yourself talk. But if you think your manager or your team is, for some reason, leaving out a critical variable or valid scenario when thinking through a tactical plan or a strategic decision, then speak up! In fact, it’s your job.

Have a Little Empathy

Often, we miss the opportunity to understand and empathize with the experience of our managers through some combination of what they don’t share and what we don’t ask. A failure to communicate directly leaves us dependent on our assumptions, and we all know how easy it is to get lost when we assume. But just like you, your manager questions their worth and value to the company. Just like you they might struggle with doubts about their basic competency and their legitimate right to occupy the role they hold. Just like you they may wonder about more senior people in the company–even when they are themselves, “more senior.” Generally speaking, the two of you are, in fact, an interdependent system, mutually reliant on one another for professional success and work satisfaction.

At the end of the day, successful business involves a series of smart actions, informed by sound analysis, strong alignment on missions and goals, and clear lines of authority and accountability. And all of this requires domain expertise, wisdom, experience, and a whole lot of empathy. I’m not talking touchy feely stuff here. I’m talking about understanding your manager’s point of view, such that you can add optimal value via feedback, support and action.

Some Neuroscience

It seems so simple, right? Why don’t good, smart people think more about the point of view of those they are trying to persuade? Is that not a common-sense strategy for those who expect to be successful? Alas, when the amygdala is highly aroused, the empathetic, smart planning part of the brain, the prefrontal-cortex, might as well be asleep. And it certainly is asleep at the wheel of good judgment.

Successful careers don’t happen if the amygdala is in the driver’s seat. Successful careers are driven by the planning, aspirational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Neuroscientists refer to this as “down regulation” (prefrontal cortex is driving) vs. “up regulation” (amygdala is driving). The issue here is the perception of threat vs. the perception of opportunity.

We’ve all worked with people, often managers, who make us feel uncomfortable, if not flat out bad. We’ve also worked with people who put us at ease and contribute to our confidence and well-being merely by thinking of them. From a neuroscience perspective, if your manager thinks positively of you, the prefrontal cortex lights up and she sees the opportunity of working with you. If she has negative feelings about you or feels threatened, the amygdala lights up and she may see you as a liability. The trick is to keep the prefrontal cortex happy…and developing a positive, empathetic relationship with your manager will go a long way towards making that happen.

Overcoming Intimidation

It’s easy to be intimidated by your manager. They have power over your day-to-day work life and can impact your career in so many ways. You need them for professional guidance, and to help make sure you are doing meaningful work. Some day you might need them for a strong job reference.

Believe it or not, your manager might be intimidated or overwhelmed by the challenge of being an “effective” manager, too. As someone who has coached and mentored many CEOs and other senior managers, I can tell you with confidence that everyone has insecurities. Chances are that you have more in common with your manager than you realize.

Let’s say this is your first job out of college…you’re riddled with insecurities, and eager to prove yourself. It’s useful to think of your manager as occupying a position parallel to your own. You might be anxious about how they see you, and whether they are invested in your success. They may be feeling the exact same way in relationship to whomever they report too, which could be a Board of Directors. This sort of parallel process often goes right to the top of any organization.

Remember that your manager is a fellow human being, and most likely as complex and filled with contradictions as you are. It’s almost impossible to identify with and work effectively with someone you fear. Identifying with your manager allows you to see them as an ally, a collaborator, even though they are senior to you. Appreciating your manager’s humanity is central to effectively managing up.

The point here is not that managers deserve your empathy, but rather that being empathetic to those above you, as well as everyone around you, gives you power. Empathy allows you the necessary insight regarding other’s intentions and needs, and helps you become a better direct report, manager, and colleague.

At the end of the day, managers at healthy, dynamic organizations are tasked with identifying individuals with high growth potential and developing strategies to accelerate their contributions to the organization. Strong companies need everyone to do their best work, and that means people taking the initiative to make decisions without continuous oversight or micro-managing. Smart companies benefit from the wisdom and perspective of all its people, but that requires confidence in yourself, belief in your point of view, a strong sense of empathy and the ability to manage up…mindfully.

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