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How to Avoid Kicking Up

You may have heard the phrase “kissing up and kicking down,” which refers to the tendency of some people to try to please and flatter their bosses while taking out frustrations on the people who report to them. While this is a common behavior, I’ve found myself more likely to do the opposite. Here’s a reader question I received about this:

In the book, Kim talks about an instance where she “kicked up” with Larry Page. I’d like to think my direct manager at the moment has some more significant gaps in his communication skill set than Larry Page did at the time; but, either way, I find myself “kicking up” a lot lately, and it’s just not acceptable.

I have a very natural and easy time having compassion for peers or anyone that reports to me in any way. I just seem to have a tough time caring personally when leaders’ decision making seems to be hurting a lot of people (and the business). It’s harder for me when leaders don’t seem to listen to the feedback they get from others on their decision-making or communication.

I’ve tried encouraging some of the folks I’m having challenging communications with to check out ‘Radical Candor’, but to no avail.

All of that leads to my question: I really want to own my part of this, and I’m not meeting my own expectations for caring personally and offering feedback in a compassionate, patient way with people I report to. Do you have any advice on how to be better about not “kicking up”?

It’s definitely been the part of ‘Radical Candor’ that’s most challenging for me.

Here’s my answer:

Thank you so much for your note. Here is what I’ve found about “kicking up.”

Don’t Get Caught up with Hierarchy

When I am giving my boss feedback, I feel like I’m punching above my weight, so I am often unnecessarily fierce because I feel I have to be. Letting go of this is a huge help. I try to think about my boss as just another person I’m working with, not someone who is “above” me.

Remember You May Not Have the Full Context

When I’m giving my boss feedback, I have much deeper knowledge of my part of a situation than my boss has, and it’s tempting to dismiss my boss as ignorant or disconnected. However, I remember that though I have deeper knowledge, my boss has broader context that I may be missing. What seemed a no brainer when I was ignorant of that context may seem a lot more nuanced once I become aware of it. So I’ve found it really helpful to take some time to understand my boss’s context and priorities. I’ve also found it helpful to begin not by giving my boss feedback, but by asking for some. And also to take a moment to verbalize the things I appreciate about working for my boss–to give praise without kissing up. Bosses are people too, and need to hear about the good stuff as well as the problems.

Try to Be Part of the Solution

Another thing I find it useful to remember: a number of managers make the mistake of thinking they are supposed to know how to fix every problem that somebody brings to them. So I try to think of ways I can help to fix the problem I’m raising or criticism I have. When I offer criticism I want the other person–whether my boss or my employee–to know I’m there to help.

When I am the boss getting feedback from employees I often feel like I’m a projection screen for everyone’s unresolved authority issues. When it comes time to give feedback to my boss, I find it useful to remember that.

When I take a step back from both roles and try to see everyone I’m working with as other people, and to remove hierarchy from the situation, it all looks and feels much more straightforward.

Do these tips help? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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Kim Scott

Kim is the co-founder of Radical Candor and author of "Radical Candor: Be a Kickass Boss without Losing your Humanity." Kim has built her career as a leader at Google and Apple and as an advisor at numerous other Silicon Valley companies. Her goal is to help people love their work and their colleagues (appropriately of course).

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