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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

3 Ways to Get Your Manager to, Well, Manage

Somewhere, in a far-off land of mythical management training 101, managers everywhere are being told not to micromanage. It’s being drilled into their heads, as we speak, that they can’t hover, they can’t nitpick, they need to be hands-off.

While that may sound like a dream come true, the reality is that sometimes we need a manager to, well, manage. And after all this “training,” some managers tend to have a hard time recognizing when their team needs a helping hand.

Fortunately, I’ve been on both sides of this fence before and have some insight on how to motivate your manager to get the hint when you need a little managerial guidance.

1. Spell it Out

I know. It seems a bit obvious, doesn’t it? Well, believe it or not, sometimes we all need a giant, flashing, billboard to get the hint, and managers are no different. Especially if you happen to be at the senior level.

I experienced this myself late in my career, when everyone on my team was highly skilled with decades of experience under our belts. It would be easy to assume that none of us needed any guidance, but that would be a mistake—one my boss made over and over again. Until I finally made it clear to him I needed some help.

All the usual signs a manager picks up on to recognize an employee needing some guidance (my seemingly non-stop litany of colorful language, for example, should’ve been a dead giveaway) hadn’t made a dent. My boss just couldn’t that see I was struggling.

Eventually, rather than continuing to suffer in silence, I pulled him aside and filled him in. He was completely surprised and, as I’d suspected, hadn’t picked up on any of the not-so-subtle clues I’d been leaving for him. Whether he was truly that oblivious or just had other pressing priorities on his plate, who knows, but in any case, he needed it spelled out, word for word.

Having to call attention to yourself, especially when you need help, isn’t easy, but when you make it clear what you need, chances are your boss will spring into action. If you do it the right way, of course. On that note:

2. Respect the Ego

This may sound a bit off, but trust me, when you’re dealing with managers—with anyone, really—egos are at play, and they need to be respected. (Managing is not often listed as one of the top ego-boosters of all time.)

The last time I had to approach a manager about his lack of managing, this knowledge helped me immensely. We were both fairly well established in our careers, so criticism of any kind wasn’t exactly part of our daily repertoire. Realizing that he might be sensitive to feedback helped remind me that there was a strong chance he’d take whatever I was saying personally, he’d get defensive, and I’d seriously reduce my chances of getting the outcome I was hoping for.

Once I had that perspective, I could approach my manager in a way I imagine he probably approached me many times in the past: with kindness and sensitivity to how my feedback would be interpreted. (i.e., Instead of saying “You’re not really supporting me on the Smith account as much as I’d like,” I could try, “It would be great to pick your brain regarding the Smith account. I’ve been struggling with how to handle it, and your expertise would really help me out.”)

And guess what? It worked beautifully. When I considered all the things my manager probably thought of before approaching me, I could easily recognize how my constructive feedback (a.k.a. a cry for help) would be viewed and adjust appropriately.

3. Ask Questions

Of course, sometimes there isn’t a specific issue or question that needs attention. Sometimes, we just need managers to manage. So, how exactly do you remind your manager that he or she is missing a few steps?

I learned this lesson on my first stint as a manager. By nature, I’m pretty hands-off, and I had told my team as much, but made sure they knew they could always come to me with questions. The problem was, no one ever did.

Then, one afternoon, one of my star employees started chatting with me as we were making our rounds during a coffee break. He started to ask me questions about a particular procedure we had just implemented, like, “How do we update the system once I’ve approved the transaction?” or “What do I do if the transaction is rejected?” These were all tasks I thought had been clearly outlined in the training materials, but after a few minutes, it became clear that not only was he having a pretty hard time getting it right, but that the entire team was struggling, too.

Sometimes, when it isn’t a clear path to just spell it out (or it’s just too awkward to do so), asking questions is a subtle way to hint to your manager that you (or your full team) may need some extra guidance—without having to make it super obvious.

It worked for me: After that, I made a regular practice of checking in with each of my employees to see what questions they had for me. Over time, they became more comfortable asking, and I did a better job managing them as a result. The nice thing about this approach is that it works whether you’re a manager or the one seeking managing!

Just about everyone needs some guidance from time to time, and occasionally, managers need a little special help themselves. Try these approaches to help your manager recognize when you need his or her expertise, and you’ll both be proud of how you managed the situation.

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