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This chapter is from the book

Needs Explicit and Needs Implicit

Let’s start by dispelling a common misunderstanding. Lots of people in business assume that “meeting the boss’s needs” means doing exactly what the boss wants them to do—accepting the boss’s vision and direction wholesale. Wrong! This assumption is simple-minded and inaccurate. It leads to managers in The Middle focusing on aligning their lips with their boss’s backsides rather than meeting anyone’s actual needs.

Real “managing upward” demands a more serious and subtle analysis of human needs, which starts with the realization that needs come in two forms—explicit needs and implicit needs.

Explicit needs are easier to understand. They may be stated in the strategic plan promulgated by the company or the division, or they may be announced by your boss whenever the team gets together for the usual pep talk/torture session. They may sound something like this:

  • “We need to expand our business internationally.”
  • “We need to create a shipping policy that will save us some money and keep the administrative assistants from running around the office like decapitated chickens every afternoon at 4 p.m. when the FedEx guy makes his last pickup.”
  • “We need to commerce-enable our Web site before Amazon.com decides to start selling the same kinds of widgets we sell and drives us out of business.”
  • “We need to hire two more designers, fast, so we’ll have a prayer of getting the fall product line into the stores sometime this year.”

Explicit needs are the kinds of things that make it into the lists of goals you write every year at objective-setting time. They’re the things you tell people you’re working on when they ask. They tend to be the things you are proud of accomplishing (if and when you happen to accomplish one of them).

Implicit needs are more subtle. People don’t talk about them. Sometimes they’re not even aware of them. Most of the time they are things that people would deny if confronted with them. They sound like this:

  • “Make me look good in front of my boss so that when he gets kicked upstairs he’ll recommend me for his job.”
  • “Help me demonstrate my creativity by coming up with some ideas for next year’s marketing campaign that I can tweak a little and show off at the next divisional conference as if they were mine.”
  • “Help me feel more like a leader and less like the kid who was always picked last in the schoolyard basketball games.”
  • “Figure out some way to keep the department running when I’m not around so I can go on vacation for ten days in a row without having to call the office every two hours to make sure the damned place isn’t on fire.”

While explicit needs tend to run a linear path, implicit needs tend be random, triggered by emotion and circumstance. But don’t think of them as flighty and certainly not as insignificant. They are ever-present, tenacious, and can overrule the explicit needs with a swiftness and power that can be awe-inspiring.

It’s a fun exercise to sit down with a sheet of paper and try listing your boss’s implicit needs. It’s also deadly serious. From the first day you meet your new boss through the last day you work together, you need to devote a portion of your time and energy to scoping out his or her implicit needs and defining them with as much precision as possible. Then measure whatever you do against those needs. (Your boss certainly will.)

One implicit need that virtually every boss has (and therefore belongs on the to-do list of every ignited manager) is the need for confidence. Your boss must have confidence that you are working in his best interest and that you are capable of delivering what he needs (both explicitly and implicitly). Fail to maintain this confidence and your boss will most likely drive you crazy—and will often drive you out.

We’ve all been there. The boss who last week simply set a goal and gave us the freedom to carry it out suddenly wants to micromanage every phone call we make this week. Sometimes it’s because they’ve lost confidence in us; other times it’s because their bosses have lost confidence in them, producing a sort of trickle-down anxiety that may end up with you being hypercritical of the dinosaur diorama your nine-year-old makes for science class. Giving your boss a sense of confidence in you is perhaps the most fundamental of all the implicit needs and the one without which no managerial relationship can succeed.

Understanding the implicit and explicit needs of your boss and his bosses sets a course by which you can align your own efforts. When that alignment is clear and accurate, you’re on track to creating an environment in which traction is possible.

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