The concept of “managing up” is well established in management and leadership theory. As someone who reports to a boss, you need to use many different techniques to get your boss’s attention, and influence your boss to act, think and react in certain ways. This is a critical skill for people at all levels of organisations.

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It is only complicated when their is a worldview divide between boss and subordinate. This can happen when the people are of different genders, religions, cultures, personality types and different generations. This last item is one I have spent many years researching and helping clients to manage (see my book on how to “Mind the Gap”, and the many white papers we have written on this issue, for example).

A brief “management tip” by Tammy Erickson in a recent online edition of the HBR reminded me of how important it is right now for Generation X (born in the 1970s and 80s) to learn how to manage up, as they deal with the Baby Boomers (born after World War II, into the 1950s and 60s) who are currently leading their organisations. Here are a few key things Gen Xers can do to more effectively manage up to Boomer bosses and bridge the generation gap in understanding what your Boomer boss wants from you:

  • Communicate your preferences. Boomers often assume that Gen Xers are merely younger versions of themselves. Don’t presume your boss knows what you’re thinking or how you’d prefer to approach an issue or task. Be specific and articulate how you like to work and what your expectations are.
  • Ask why. Boomers grew up in an era when subordinates (and children) just did what they were told. So, they’re used to giving tasks by telling you what to do, when it must be done by, how it should be done, and even who to do it with. But they’re not great at explaining why it needs to be done, or why doing it a particular way will be the best. As a Gen Xer, you work best when you know “why”. So ask why.
  • Take initiative. Boomers admire initiative. They like it when people go ahead and do more than their job description. So don’t wait for “someone else” to do it – you “just do it”.
  • Send longer emails. Xers prefer to get ten emails with one line each, and a subject line that can be used as a “to do” list item in their inbox. Boomers prefer to group their requests and messages into longer emails with multiple action items in one message. Don’t fight this. Just send fewer emails a day, with more content in each one.
  • Rather don’t send emails. Actually, if you can help it, rather do face to face meetings with your boss. (And never use text messages for important information).
  • Pay your dues, and earn your credits. Getting what you want or need largely depends on your ability to be viewed as a valuable contributor to the team. Working hard and showing successful completion of assigned tasks will give you credits that you can cash in later.
  • Contribute. Lose the “whatever” attitude, and start expressing an opinion. Boomers can’t stand the ambivalence of Gen Xers.
  • Play the politics. Boomers thrive on office politics. You need to learn to play the game – and even enjoy it. If you don’t, maybe it’s time to consider that entrepreneurial startup after all.
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