The Key to Managing Up

A Useful Question?The Director of Supply Chain Management at a major Canadian industrial company, who took one of my leadership development classes, told me about the snow day policy he has to enforce that he thinks is crazy. If someone decides it’s not safe for them to drive to work in a heavy snowfall, they have 3 choices. They can make up the hours another time. They can take a vacation day. Or they can take an unpaid day.

This is because the VP of Finance doesn’t trust anyone, and assumes that, even though people can take work home and still put in a full day, if paid snow days are allowed people will just go skiing or watch TV, and he won’t be able to monitor them.

Now the director cares a lot about trust, both because it’s a big theme in business these days, and also because he personally values trust very highly. He makes building trust within his own team a priority. He knows the VP doesn’t trust him, or anyone else, and this is very personally frustrating for the director. The director is always trying to find ways to address the trust issue, and rarely gets anywhere.

This raises a very helpful guideline for dealing with attitude: the difference between an interesting question and a useful question, between a question you care about, and the question the person you’re working with cares about.

The Supply Chain Director might really want to know why the VP is so untrusting. But the VP, as the senior person, might not see any reason why he should humour the director with that conversation. It might go nowhere.

Because the question, “Why doesn’t the VP trust anyone,” may be an interesting question for the director, but it’s not a useful question. The VP probably doesn’t feel the need to be psychoanalyzed by his staff, which might be how he would take it if the director approached him about issues of trust. It’s not a question likely to start a conversation the VP cares about.

The more useful question in this case is, “What is the VP trying to protect with this snow day policy?”  The VP would probably have a lot to say about that. About how the company can’t afford to throw wages away on people who aren’t doing any work, the need to keep productivity tight, having to protect the bottom line, and so on.

So if what the VP cares about is protection for productivity and the bottom line, what effect is the snow day policy having on those things?

This is the approach the Supply Chain Director and I decided he should take. He spent time assessing the effect on morale in his team. If there was snow in the prediction everyone got nervous and crabby and distracted from their work. Communication was less fluid. Details got missed. And this effect carried over even on days when snow wasn’t an issue. It pushed the enthusiasm-for-work factor down a notch altogether.

It’s hard to put an exact value on these things, but the Director made some assumptions and some estimates. He figured that the snow day policy had a negative effect on productivity overall, and he put it conservatively at 1 or 2 percent. He thought it might be more, but he had enough concrete data points of missed orders, delayed paperwork and so on that he thought he could defend 2%.

This process he went through is called dollarizing. If you can put a dollar figure on the costs of attitude, you can make it personal for people who’s job it is to care about numbers.

What’s 2% of the cost of operating the Supply Chain department for this huge company? It’s huge. It’s far more than the cost of giving every employee a paid day for every snow day even if they do just go skiing. The policy was counterproductive to what the VP actually cared about.

This was how the Director made the issue personal for the VP. Not by asking about trust, but by asking about numbers. By asking about what the VP personally cared about.

When you need to get peers or the boss unstuck from an unhelpful attitude, you have to start with understanding what they really care about, personally. That’s not always so easy to find out. And you don’t have as much sway with people at your level or above your level as you do with direct reports, to get them to engage in a conversation about it with you. Often you have to extrapolate from their behaviour, and the VP’s behaviour seems to indicate that he cares more about numbers than about trust. No matter how interested you may be in trust, the useful questions are likely to be about numbers. So you go with that. Because you have to find a way to make the question personal for the VP. When it comes down to core issues, work is always personal.


  1. Brilliant. Operating managers should all take a course or two given to the company’s sales reps. Dollarizing, listening, framing – they’re skills that work anywhere within an organization.

  2. Thank you Crane! As I move forward on projects I’m going to intentionally focus on how changing something – even for the better – needs to be informed by getting at and understanding the value co-workers and managers attach to the ‘old’ and the ‘new.’

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