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What It Means to 'Manage Up' and 7 Secrets to Doing It Well

May 13, 2020
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In a perfect world, every employee would have an excellent manager. However, in real life, this unfortunately doesn’t always happen. In fact, managers can even make their employees’ day-to-day lives in the office downright difficult in some instances.

Some managers may be constantly overwhelmed and distracted, and forget to assign necessary tasks to their employees. Others may be micromanagers who watch their employees’ every move and criticize them constantly. And others may have the best of intentions but be poor communicators, leaving their staff wondering what just happened and what steps they're supposed to take next every time they exit their boss’s office.

No manager is perfect, but there are ways in which they can be more effective...with some constructive help from their employees. That’s where the important skill of managing up comes into play.

What Managing Up Means

‘Managing up’ essentially means managing your manager. And the goal of managing up is for it to be mutually beneficial for both the manager and the employee.

“Managing up is about consciously and deliberately developing and maintaining effective relationships with supervisors, bosses, and other people above you in the chain of command,” said Mary Abbajay, CEO of Careerstone Group and author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed With Any Type of Boss. “It’s about consciously working with your boss to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the organization. Managing up is about you taking charge of your workplace experience,” she said.

Why It’s So Important

Managing up is a tactic that employees can use to not only make their bosses’ lives easier, but their own as well. According to ZJ Hadley, senior consultant at HR consultancy Bright + Early, when you manage up, you are advocating for yourself and avoiding wasted effort due to conflict and miscommunication.

“If you effectively manage up, you position yourself as a trusted ally to your manager, save your team a lot of heartache, and open yourself up to new opportunities in the future,” Hadley said.

If you’re hoping to manage up — and reap the benefits — here are some secrets to keep in mind that will ensure your success.  

1. Adapt to your boss.

Your boss might not be the easiest person in the world to work with. However, Abbajay said it’s important to keep in mind that bosses are humans who have their preferred communication and work styles, priorities, and pet peeves. You’ll need to be adaptable while figuring out how to effectively collaborate with them.

“When you and your boss have similar ways of working, then managing that relationship is easy. But when your style is different than your bosses’ (or colleagues’), it takes more effort and patience to manage that relationship,” she said.

Instead of simply concluding that your boss is difficult, identify their difficult behaviors and choices, and then break them down into smaller and more manageable bits. For example, if your boss is a micromanager and always watching over you, you could conclude that they may just be anxious that their subordinates aren’t getting enough done. Address that fear by emailing them as soon as you finish a task, and then outline what you’ll be working on next. This will give them the assurance that things are moving forward according to plan without them having to constantly check-in. And whatever the situation, try to accommodate your manager at all times.

“We can't change other people. We can only try to meet them where they are and change the way we interact with them,” Abbajay said.

2. Be reliable.

A key part of managing up is being there for your boss no matter what. Be as reliable as possible to earn their trust and show you care about your job.

“You want to be someone your boss and other senior leaders feel they can count on,” said Amy Kan, MBA, a Los Angeles-based leadership, executive, and life coach. “Keep your boss informed about what you’re doing. Let them know when you’re making progress and when you might be falling behind. If you need to report a setback, be prepared with at least one proposal for how to fix the issue,” she said.

3. Maintain communication.

Being communicative with your manager is the key to a great relationship. And communication is a two-way street: In addition to sharing with them what’s going on in your world, make sure you’re aware of what they’re dealing with as well. If you know what’s on your manager’s schedule and to-do list, you can help ensure that they’ll perform their duties better, too.

“Communicate with your boss about projects, deadlines, and difficulties so that they know what’s going on along the way, are not surprised by anything, and can help,” said Stephanie Lane, a Minnesota-based HR manager and lifestyle coach.

4. Be proactive.

Instead of just waiting for tasks to come along, think ahead and proactively come up with ways to ease the load that’s on your boss’s shoulders.

“If you want to be really valuable, learn to anticipate your boss's needs...Try to provide them with answers before they have to ask the question. Monitor the company calendar and their schedule to see what meetings and events they have coming up. Be proactive about collecting and creating relevant information and reports,” Kan said.

5. Exercise transparency.

Larry Sternberg, JD, a senior leader at Talent Plus, a human resources consulting firm, and author of Managing to Make a Difference: How to Engage, Retain, and Develop Talent for Maximum Performance, recommended keeping your boss informed and not hiding any information. For instance, if you’re going to meet with your boss’s boss, tell your immediate boss as soon as possible so that you’re not stepping on any toes. 

6. Stay positive.

It can be tough to manage up because of the many obstacles that could get in your way. For instance, if you go to your boss’s boss, your boss might feel like you’re undermining them. If you secretly feel that your boss is not a good manager and your tone comes off as critical or judgemental, they could get offended. The stakes are high because if you make a wrong move, it could cost you your job. That’s why it’s imperative to maintain a positive attitude and keep trying your best in order to learn and get ahead.

“The key is to not be disappointed,” said Michael Provitera, author of Level Up Leadership. “Managing up is like sales. You may deal with a lot of rejection. Some bosses do not respond to emails, phone calls, and appointments. Do not feel bad. Keep trying and do not let this upset you. Managing up works for some and not for others. Stay positive and keep managing up and eventually you will get noticed,” he said.

7. Seek out their help.

People are flattered when you ask them for their opinion — the same goes for your manager. According to Sternberg, it’s wise to ask for advice and guidance when you need it.

“Although you should bring possible solutions, you’ll run into problems,” he said. “It shows respect to ask your boss for guidance,” he said.

Managing Up Makes a Difference

Managing up may come with its own set of challenges, but in the end, it can be highly advantageous for your career. Just keep these seven secrets in mind, and you’ll be well on your way to moving in a positive direction in your professional life.

“We all must be responsible for managing our own career...If our bosses are an integral part of our career success, then we have to do what we can to manage that relationship to make it work,” Abbajay said.