In a meeting with a manager, particularly a one-on-one meeting, most employees defer to the manager to start and guide the discussion. This deference is an understandable result of the office hierarchy, where employees generally expect to be given orders and managers generally expect to in command. But top employees know perfectly well how to flip these roles and turn every meeting into an opportunity to manage the manager, or “manage up,” which can dramatically improve their standing in the manager’s eyes.
Before discussion the execution of this workplace maneuver, it is important to understand why it works so well. Good managers often have a common psychological trait: the need for control. But importantly, desiring control does not necessarily mean that one must personally be in control of the situation; it merely implies that someone is in control. People who desire control generally will step in and control a situation if their is a control vacuum, but if they believe the situation is being handled effectively, they are usually perfectly happy to take a back seat. This is a nuance often overlooked by employees who complain of an “overly controlling” or “micromanaging” boss. While some managers are more capable than others of trusting their employees with decisions, an employee must earn this trust; it is not an entitlement. Once earned, a good manager will yield more runway to the employee, as well as more responsibility and more opportunities to grow.
One of the best ways to earn this trust quickly is to take control–or attempt to take control–of every meeting. This does not mean you should dominate every meeting. Your goal is to demonstrate initiative by filling the vacuum of control with your own agenda and ideas, seeking feedback and collaboration with your manager rather than seeking your manager’s top-down direction.
To take control of meetings, you’ll need to take these four principles to heart.
1. Plan an action-oriented agenda
This axiom actually contains two points in one. First, every meeting needs an agenda. By “every meeting,” this includes when your manager asks you to stop by for five minutes for a “quick progress update.” If the meeting is worth having at all, it is worth taking a moment to plan the agenda, and there are simply no exceptions. This agenda, however, does not need to be typed out neatly in Times New Roman and distributed to attendees for review. In fact, more than half of the meetings I hold with either managers or subordinates are supported by an agenda of 2-3 bullet points that I write on the top of my notepad prior to the meeting. The second nuance here is in making sure your agenda items are “action-oriented.” For example, an agenda item called “Give update on the Peterman account” has no action attached to it. Instead, reorient the item around a decision, such as “Agree on response to tax concerns raised re: Peterman account,” or “Establish deadline for go/no-go decision on Peterman account.” This will ensure that any discussion of an agenda item has a clear goal, which will make it easy during the meeting to see when the discussion has strayed and needs to be refocused.
2. Announce the agenda at the start of the meeting
While it is not necessary to pre-print agendas for every meeting, it is critical that the agenda be announced at the meeting’s start, without exception. Framing the agenda helps ensure everyone stays on track. After reading off the agenda items, it is a good practice to ask if anyone else has anything they want to cover. People who come to a meeting with priorities that differ from yours have a tendency to derail the meeting by pulling attention toward other topics, so make a show of writing down these additional topics to demonstrate to the offerer that the topic will be addressed in time. By incorporating others’ priorities into your agenda, you retain control of the meeting without being perceived as dominating it with your own exclusive priorities.
3. Encourage discussion and feedback, but guide the meeting back to agenda items as needed
Taking “control” of the meeting does not mean that you are the only one who contributes. In fact, one would hope that the point of the meeting is to foster collaboration, and it is your job as the meeting’s organizer to facilitate this discussion, not lecture the others (especially your manager) on your ideas. But not all discussion is relevant or productive, and it is your responsibility as the person in control of the meeting to identify times when the discussion has strayed from the agenda and rein it back in. If you announced and agreed on the agenda at the start of the meeting, and your agenda items were carefully constructed to be action-oriented, then simply by restating the current agenda item, the meeting participants can easily recognize that their discussion is or is not helping to resolve the issue at hand.
Sometimes a worthy but unplanned topic will bubble to the surface in a meeting organically. It is important that you deal with this unplanned topic without losing control of the meeting. You have two options. On the one hand, you can allow the discussion to continue and thereby jeopardize other agenda items, or you could table the discussion to another meeting. Either choice is perfectly acceptable and will depend on the prioritization of the unplanned topic relative to the other agenda items, but the key–and what most people fail to do when this situation happens–is that the decision must be made openly. That is, when the topic bubbles up and begins capturing attention, you should pause the conversation and note that this topic was not planned for this meeting, and you guide a brief discussion about how it should be handled. For example, you could say, “I know this topic was not planned, but it is so important that I think we should focus on this topic now even if it means we need to have a follow-up meeting on the other agenda items if we do not get to them today.” Alternatively, if you think tabling is best, you could say, “This topic is an important one, but I think we should designate more time for it to make sure it is handled properly.” Then seek agreement from the rest of the meeting participants on the course of action, and go from there. In doing so, no matter the outcome, you have remained in control of the meeting even as priorities have shifted.
4. Summarize the action items as the end of the meeting
A good meeting ends with a recap if the action items decided in the meeting. No action item should ever leave a meeting without a person identified to be responsible for the task and a deadline for at least one next step in accomplishing the action. There are no exceptions to this rule. This rule gets tricky when the person who will be needed to perform the action is not in the meeting, but keep in mind that the person responsible for the action item does not have to be the person who will perform the action; the responsible party simple has the job of communicating and coordinating with others to make sure the action gets done. If you walk out of a meeting without a clear point person and deadline assigned for each task, you should assume no one is responsible. When no one is responsible for a task, by default, the failure of the task reverts to you as the meeting organizer. (At least, that is how your manager will see it.)
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These four principles for taking control of a meeting should guide every meeting you have, even a one-on-one meeting called by your manager. You should view even a simple “check-in” meeting as an opportunity for you to present your progress report to your manager, and it is up to you to craft a short agenda with this in mind. Rather than leave it to your manager to ask you questions about how the project is going, you can (and should) take the opportunity to frame the discussion yourself. Your manager will not be shy about asking questions or pivoting the discussion to other topics, and you should be willing to throw out your agenda and adopt the manager’s if the situations calls for it, but it is important that you show you are not simply waiting on instructions. A good manager wants employees who are ready to be managers themselves, not people who are simply “awaiting orders.” By following these steps, you can make great strides to earning your manager’s trust and confidence–and earning your next promotion too.