Why the Strong Job Market Empowers You to Manage Up

4 ways to reduce conflict with bosses and coworkers.

Posted Jul 08, 2018

With the second-longest economic recovery period on record underway and jobless claims at historically low levels, this employment climate may be just the ticket to manage up with a difficult boss or coworker. This is arguably an excellent time to encourage some behavioral shifts, with maximum potential and lower risks for your career.

Dreamstime
Source: Dreamstime

Employees are quitting for greener pastures in record numbers in recent months and salaries are going through the roof. From January to May 2018, Americans who switched jobs enjoyed 48% larger annual salary boosts than those who didn't change jobs.

That doesn’t mean you should jump ship. But it does put you in a position of greater control. It means you can take more chances to improve upon challenging relationships at work.

As you weigh the prospects of managing up, however, you may be pondering one of three classic sentiments:

a) Engagement: “If I exert the effort to manage up, what risks will I take?”

b) Disengagement: “People don’t change, so I’ll accept the status quo—or remove myself from the situation.”

c) Hope: “Maybe they’ll change over time.”

If you decide to explore a) Engagement, there’s always the question of whether your efforts will be futile, sustainable, or in the worst case, backfire. Yet it’s the most empowering option for many reasons. Too often, people assume it’s all or nothing; too risky to speak up and easier to avoid confrontation. So they walk, only to find another form of conflict lurking elsewhere.

These questions permeate life—and, as with many issues of emotional intelligence, the workplace is just a microcosm.

Let’s jump to c) Hope. If you haven’t spoken up about the interpersonal issue at hand, you might as well lump that into an eventual b) Disengagement, because most mortals are not mind-readers, for one. And if you opt for just accepting the status quo, you’ll likely build resentment before things erupt.

Still convinced you shouldn’t rock the boat? If so, the following may surprise you: In a study conducted by Nathan W. Hudson and Brent W. Roberts from the University of Illinois, the vast majority of people surveyed wanted to modify their personalities.

And in a major study of 50,000 people over several decades, their personalities actually shifted. Of the “Big Five” personality traits—neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness, extroversion, and agreeableness—all five showed major fluctuations across individual participants' lives.

Of course, not every situation warrants engagement. Some are too toxic and require you to step away. The key caveats are: how motivated is the person to make a shift; how severe is the situation; and what is your tolerance level?

Before you jump into the fray and manage up in full force with your boss or anyone, consider these four tips:

1. Be delicate in your approach. Observe anyone who’s sustained a long term personal or business relationship and you’ll notice they’re masters at diplomacy. For example: “Stop being so negative all the time!” versus “Is everything all right; can I help in some way?”

When you can help your boss or colleague save face, or you can sandwich constructive criticism between genuine, positive compliments, your comments hold much more weight.

2. Reinforce good behavior. Acknowledge the behavior you want to promote: “When you said ‘great job’ to the team, everyone was beaming. I wasn’t sure if you noticed it.” Even managers thrive on praise, so you’ll likely encourage your boss to think about the positive impact at the next opportunity.

There’s always that fine line between positive reinforcement and patronizing. You can’t go overboard … and will have to gauge response.

Perhaps you’re having trouble getting a wishy-washy colleague to commit to part of a project. Acknowledge that it’s not always easy to provide a definitive answer, but by getting one, you’ll both enjoy an XYZ benefit. You’re sharing information that could lead to a mutual advantage, while giving the other person power.

3. Don’t reinforce bad behavior. Consider whether your own actions could be rewired to achieve a different response. Maybe you have a boss who asks you to stay late consistently and you haven’t discouraged the requests. You’ve tried being a team player, but it’s time to push back:

“Tonight, I have something important to take care of, but I’ll be focused in the morning and I’m sure I’ll make a lot of headway,” delivered with strong eye contact and a confident smile.

This works the same way as it does with demanding toddlers. When they’re told, “No,” and are given reasonable alternatives, they adjust their expectations. (Of course, you can’t refuse tasks on a steady basis if you like your job, but boundary-setting is key in any relationship!)

4. Recognize the importance of feelings. Research conducted at 130 companies around the world found that behavioral changes happen mostly by getting directly to people’s feelings, whether it’s insecurity, fear, empathy or other emotions.

Try to understand what’s really driving the person to the bad behavior … from the most basic human perspective. Do they feel challenged? Hurt or embarrassed? Are they fearful of losing control? You’re leading with an emotionally intelligent approach—and providing motivation for change.

The Big Picture

Remember that this is a process. You may have discovered the perfect motivator for someone to change, but allow time for your thoughtful approach to have an impact. Know that there will be setbacks along the way.

Keep in mind your own tolerance levels. If you’re dealing with extreme challenges, it may be time to take your concerns to management—or move onto your favorite job posting site.

In the current strong job market, this is an opportune time to manage up, take some calculated risks and improve upon your work relationships toward advancing your career.