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Communications of the ACM


Design Patterns for Managing Up

Design Patterns for Managing Up, illustration

Credit: Alexey Blogoodf

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Have you ever been in a situation where you are presenting to your manager or your manager's manager and you completely flub the opportunity by saying all the wrong things? Me too. It is from such encounters that I started to put together design patterns for handling these difficult situations. I like to think in systems and patterns, so applying this way of thinking to communication just makes sense. I have also found these rules of thumb are useful to others, so I would like to share them here.

When you can spot the patterns, you can use some of the ideas presented here as guidelines to navigate these tricky, high-stress scenarios. This way you can feel confident and capable as a leader because you will know what to do: how to solve the problem and what steps to follow next.


Anthony Wasserman

These patterns are valuable if you want to continue to be employed by your current company. In item 3, however, there is no discussion of the situation(s) where the employee feels that a decision is so egregiously wrong that it is impossible to accept it or to justify it to one's team. Escalating one's strong feelings to senior management, even if presented unemotionally and backed by solid data, is likely to be a career-limiting move. Similarly, with item 4, negative feedback from a manager (not a mentor) is likely to limit your chances for advancement in your current company, whether or not the feedback was justified. That's especially true when this negative feedback is part of an annual written performance review that will become part of your personnel file.

In these situations, the most honorable course of action is to plan an orderly departure from one's current employer, for which there is also a pattern:
A. Refresh your resume to include your most recent contributions and to highlight the value that you offer to a new employer
B. If you have a trusted mentor, share your decision confidentially and seek advice about professional contacts and possible employers
C. Continue performing your job to the best of your ability, since you don't know if or when you will receive an attractive offer (responsibilites, title, salary, company)
D. Don't speak negatively of your current employer or manager to your colleagues. It's a small world, and there is no point in making enemies, particularly since you may encounter these people again in your professional career
E. When the time comes, plan your departure gracefully, giving appropriate advance notice (though you may be shown the door immediately), and making your best effort to see that others have been briefed on the status of any of your current projects

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@Anthony Your advice is sound for those situations. I honestly hope that doesnt happen to someone though because generally leaving your job should be your last course of action.
Thanks so much for the thoughtful (and useful) comment! It makes the article much better. :)

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