The Deeper Work of Managing Up

The Deeper Work of Managing Up

By Angelica Crisi, Laura Quiros, Ph.D., LMSW
August 12, 2021 | 5 minutes
Marketing Management and Leadership Management of Individual Personnel Department Management and Motivation Content Type Article Additional Options Content Level: Essential
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Managing up effectively for legal marketing professionals is critical to the success of their teams and the firms they serve. Unlike many other industries, law firms operate in an environment where marketing professionals are accountable not just to their department supervisors, but also to the dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of partner-level bosses, as well as external clients.

Although the theory and practice of “managing up” has been dissected extensively, recent, major cultural shifts demand a refreshed perspective.

We are still navigating a pandemic and are still at the center of a racial justice movement, both of which have shifted — in fact, upended — the way we work, live and interact with each other. With millions of employees in the process of returning to the office after more than a year of working from home, physically isolated from coworkers, now is the perfect opportunity to reevaluate our professional relationships and our shared professional objectives in order to engage our colleagues — specifically our supervisors and leadership — on a deeper and more sincere level.

To move toward this goal, we suggest that legal marketing professionals apply an empathic lens to the process of managing up. While this style of leadership is hardly new, the notion of managing up with empathy has not received much attention. We have an opportunity to help ourselves and our managers foster a healthier work environment that benefits leadership, the firm and its clients. Below are some tips to consider when managing up through an empathic lens.

Get to know your firm. Being intimately connected to the firm’s culture, business goals and value propositions allows you to make decisions and provide recommendations to leadership that are aligned with the best interests of your organization. The word intimately is the key here. You must have your finger on the pulse of your firm’s core values and interests, which will allow you to speak with conviction and credibility when offering counter perspectives, having difficult discussions or trying to influence leadership to steer decision-making in a certain direction.

Create opportunities for deeper connections. Fostering closely knit, authentic relationships with your manager and senior leaders helps build interpersonal connectivity that provides for more meaningful exchanges, deeper rapport, enhanced commitment to the firm and more relationship equity to effectively address and mitigate conflict. Finding tasteful ways to move beyond the business and engage in more personal, non-work-related discussions will help you build stronger working relationships. 

Although the theory and practice of “managing up” has been dissected extensively, recent, major cultural shifts demand a refreshed perspective.

Engage in Active Listening. While building spaces for deeper connections, it’s important to pay close attention to how you are listening. When speaking with your manager or senior leaders, are you listening to respond or are you listening with the goal of understanding their perspectives, finding opportunities to advance collaboration, and receiving the insight and direction necessary to achieve relevant business goals? Often, when there is an imbalance of power between professional colleagues, it’s tempting to focus on what we think someone said, instead of focusing on what need or goal the individual seeks to fulfill. Listening more deeply can help you cut through the noise to gain a clearer understanding and therefore, be more responsive to business objectives. 

Create a brave space. We all know that power dynamics exist in law firms, especially between attorneys and professional staff. These dynamics can cause one to pause, hold back or even retreat from the opportunity to truly help leadership advance the firm’s goals. How do we create a “brave space” that allows us to manage up effectively without tearing down the canopy of psychological safety? Creating brave spaces requires you to consider the timing of a conversation; it requires you to be vulnerable by sharing certain aspects of your life or your emotional state in an effort to strengthen a relationship. It also requires asking questions to gain clarity and establish shared meaning instead of simply assuming what someone is thinking. This type of constructive conversation can help evolve the relationship with your supervisor and help foster a more inclusive, supportive and, ultimately, productive organizational culture.

Speak truth to power. It can be extremely difficult to share certain truths with those who are in more senior positions for fear of negative consequences, including reputational harm, retaliation and scorched relationships. When engaging in these discussions, it’s again important to practice empathy — that is, to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How invested are they in the topic? What is their perspective? How will they respond? Also, consider your personal and professional goals when speaking your truth. Are you trying to save a failing project? Are you trying to save face?

Try to establish common ground to build bridges to understanding. For instance, if you believe your manager has mandated an approach that won’t accomplish the desired goal, find opportunities to discuss the goal with your manager to demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of what needs to be accomplished. Then articulate why the current approach may not work. To communicate alternate perspectives and approaches professionally and empathically, consider phrases like “Another area of consideration…” or “From my perspective…”

Every challenge creates an opportunity to reflect and grow. The dramatic overhaul of our personal and professional lives brought on by the pandemic is an opportunity to reimagine the art of managing up. Our approach emphasizes empathy as the cornerstone of holding yourself and your managers accountable for fostering an inclusive and supportive environment that’s conducive to advancing organizational goals.  

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Angelica Crisi
Coston Consulting

Angelica Crisi is a partner and COO of Coston Consulting where she advises clients on marketing, business development, and diversity, equity and inclusion matters. Prior to joining the firm, Crisi served as the CMO for an award-winning plaintiffs’ litigation firm and led litigation marketing efforts at three Am Law 100 law firms. She has been recognized as an LGBTQ+ leader by GO Magazine and a "Top 40 under 40" by Business Equality Pride Magazine.

Laura Quiros, Ph.D., LMSW
Coston Consulting

Laura Quiros, Ph.D., LMSW, advises, coaches and trains boards of directors, executives and other professionals across the corporate, professional services, higher education and non-profit sectors to advance their DEI efforts. She regularly works with clients to expand their racial literacy and help them communicate more openly about race and racism. She also helps clients identify, understand and overcome issues that create a culture of organizational whiteness.