The Power of A Question: Managing Up in the Nonprofit Sector


The Power of A Question: Managing Up in the Nonprofit Sector

By Leaha Wynn

Up until entering into the nonprofit field, I had never heard of “managing upward”. For a while, I saw this phrase on job descriptions as a desired characteristic that candidates would possess. A quick Google search will get you a slew of articles, yet, as often is the case with aspects of emotional intelligence, this skill still seemed like something best gained through practice.

During Leading Through Change, the 2017 YNPN National Conference in Atlanta, GA, I decided to attend a deep dive session titled, “Managing Upward” by Catherine Perry from The Inward Bound Center for Nonprofit Leadership, and in the end, I walked away having practiced a number of best practices to consider implementing when looking to manage upward.

The session covered three integral skillsets which are essential to managing upward:

  1. Understanding organizational culture, expectations, and goals
  2. Effectively receiving feedback
  3. Asking powerful questions to give feedback and coach others

Understanding Organizational Culture, Expectations, and Goals

One important group of barriers to hearing (and giving) feedback are the implicit norms that lie below the surface of each organizational culture and individual. A common depiction of these implicit norms is through an iceberg, such as the one below:

Image result for iceberg culture metaphor image 

Oftentimes, managing upward requires that you understand the organizational culture’s explicit or implicit rules. Especially if you are still new to the organization, this can make managing up challenging.  Beyond navigating new explicit cultural norms, such as the policies, procedures, structures, or shared values, you must weave your way through and gain a full understanding of the implicit norms that might be present. In these moments, it can be helpful to explicitly state your understanding of the organizational cultural aspects in play and gain clarity on what the goal is in order to make sure all parties are in sync. A great way to do this is to explicitly state these, for example, by using the phase, “I’m assuming that…”

    “… I’m assuming that the goal is X”

    “… I’m assuming that we are on the same page…”

    “… I’m assuming that you perceived X as the main barrier as well…”

Some questions, such as “why” questions can put others on the defensive (e.g. “Why aren’t we focusing on X goal?”), so it’s best to change the frame of conversation to the aspect of explicit or implicit norms about which you are trying to gain clarity or about which you are assuming.

Effectively Receiving Feedback

There are four main barriers that block effectively receiving feedback

  1. Defensiveness
  2. Blaming (other people or circumstances)
  3. Shutting Down
  4. Aggression/ Anger

These barriers cause an internal monologue in the feedback recipient which blocks them from really hearing the valuable feedback being shared.

On a personal, individual level, recognizing the presence of these barriers in our initial reaction can enable us to remove them from our response or to pause our response until later. Learning which of these barriers is your “barrier of choice” by examining past behavior can help you prepare for their arrival in these feedback conversations. And recognizing which barrier the recipient of your feedback is experiencing will help you sidestep these barriers when you are managing up.

Asking Powerful Questions to Give Feedback and Coach Others

When feedback barriers are in play, either in you, in someone to whom you are giving feedback, or in someone whom you are coaching, the internal monologue they cause can be broken by the use of powerful questions. Powerful questions, which are best described as questions which create insight, innovation, and action in a situation which did not exist previously, and which help the recipient think outside the box of the internal thought loop, help refocus thinking back to the goal at hand and to a solution to the feedback given. These questions are meant to be delivered devoid of opinion, assumptions, or value judgements so that the powerful questions are coaching, not influencing. Examples of powerful questions shared in the session included:

  • What’s possible?
  • What are three radical ideas?
  • What if it’s a year from now and nothing has changed?
  • What assumptions have you made?
  • What’s the price you’re paying?
  • What’s the payoff for not changing?
  • What’s your wildest dream?
  • What would be a huge step right now?
  • What would work?
  • What haven’t you thought of?
  • What have you not said?
  • What are you choosing?
  • What will help you?
  • What if the opposite were true?
  • What rule do you need to break here?
  • What are you resisting?
  • What are you trying to attract?
  • Who do you really want to be?
  • Who can you become if you make this change?
  • Who is in charge here?
  • Picture someone you deeply admire. What would they say?
  • Who can help you?
  • Where could you make this change?
  • Where can this take you?
  • Where is there choice?
  • Where are you kidding yourself?
  • When will you begin?
  • When will you stop?
  • How would your 80-year-old-self advise you? ...demand of you?
  • How can you get more clarity?
  • How can it be bigger?
  • How can this be fun?
  • How can this be a turning point?
  • What do you really want?
  • What do we know?
  • What would it take?

Of course, these are just examples; and of course, certain questions are good for some situations and not others. There is definitely an amount of judgment that goes into the process, and the more you practice, the more equipped you will be to receive and give feedback in an effort to manage yourself, others, and particularly, to manage up. I urge you to practice a few hypothetical scenarios either on your own or with a friend.

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