Risky Business: How to Manage Up

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An engineer is dying to tell her boss: "STOP sending me so many emails!"

Ever try to reform your boss?

You know it's risky. Maybe your boss doesn't want to be changed. Maybe, if there's a problem, your boss thinks the problem is you.

The engineer elaborates: "My manager sits a few feet away. And all day long, he emails. I email him back—he emails me back. Most of these things could be resolved quickly, by talking, instead of playing email ping pong.

"Any advice?" she asks.

Well, instead of trying to STOP behavior, try "shaping" it. You shape behavior by rewarding any action that comes remotely close to the target.

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Shaping is simple. Consider how you teach a baby to walk.

You don't say, "STOP falling down so much."

Nor do you say, "I'm totally unimpressed. You can barely walk two steps without falling flat on your face. Call me in 20 years when you're ready to run a marathon."

Instead, you go crazy over any effort at all, and in no time flat, your baby is walking here and there—and soon, mostly there, and then, moving to a faraway place, and all you ever get are text messages. Is it so hard to call? Even an occasional postcard would be nice.

But I digress.

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Back to the engineer—let's apply shaping.

Ever talk with your boss? I ask her.

"Only if I walk over and initiate it," she says. "Then we usually resolve things quickly."

Well, assuming it really is quick (otherwise, a short email can beat a long conversation), and assuming your boss doesn't get visibly agitated the minute he sees you coming, then you really don't have a problem.

Keep initiating conversations. Keep resolving things quickly.

And every once in a while, say, "Thanks for being so accessible. I really appreciate how fast we get things done when we talk."

Your boss may be more malleable than you think.

Or, maybe he just wants you to take initiative. Maybe he's shaping you.

Tip: Build on what's working, instead of driving yourself crazy about what isn't.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential (www.expresspotential.com), Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is "Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy," and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.