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Succeed at work by learning how to manage up: 8 tips for doing it well

July 7, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is managing up?

The benefits of managing up in the workplace

Managing up when your relationship with your boss is not strong

Managing up and understanding your boss

How to manage up at work: 8 tips

How to manage up: start managing up today

Showing initiative and leadership skills are necessary if you’re aiming to quickly advance up the corporate ladder. This is particularly true when you’re aiming to secure a management position.

But how do you strike the right balance? 

You need to show your boss that you can take charge. However, you also want to be a team player. You want to be independent but also keep them informed.

You want to show that you have confidence and ideas. But you don’t want to seem like you’re talking down, over-stepping, or being insubordinate in the process.

Navigating this balance means managing up. Managing up is a key skill that serves leaders and direct reports at all levels.

Let’s discuss managing up. We’ll tell you what it is, how to manage up effectively, and what the benefits are to doing so.

What is managing up?

Young managers are seldom promoted to their positions because of their management capabilities. 

Let’s face it. Most achieve the management rung by being experts in a specific area. These areas could be project management or finance, rather than in the art of managing people. 

But there’s often an overlooked step in preparing to be a manager, and that's in learning to manage up before you assume the role of boss. 

So what exactly is managing up, and who are you meant to manage? When first introducing the idea, most people respond, “But wait. Isn’t it meant to be the other way round? Isn’t my boss meant to manage me?” 

And you’d be right. That’s the brief most of us received. 

Every relationship, even one defined by power, such as boss and staff member, is still a relationship. It demands input from both parties and a healthy degree of give-and-take. In this case, the boss manages, and the staff member manages up.

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How does managing up work?

Ever experienced one of those super-efficient executive assistants (EA) who seems to have more power than the boss? Here’s an EA who knows what’s important to the leader and how to manage their calendar so that the boss gets to focus. 

The EA may not have the title, but they wield influence by ensuring the boss’s success. This is one version of how managing up works. In this case, the EA is the gatekeeper who allows access to the boss and prioritizes the boss’s success over everyone else’s.

For most people, managing up doesn't involve being so fully enmeshed in the details of the leader's life (they probably wouldn't welcome that). However, understanding what matters to your higher-up and orienting toward what helps them succeed should guide your approach for managing up.

The benefits of managing up in the workplace

Why manage up? There are direct benefits related to performance reviews, promotions, and opportunities. There are also indirect ones related to team performance, keeping projects properly resourced and on schedule, better working relationships, and reduced stress.

For many employees, your personal performance reviews and rating determine: 

  • Your rate of progress 
  • Whether you achieve an increase in salary or not
  • Your measurement of value to the organization 

An important contributor to that rating is your boss or supervisor. 

Inevitably, managing up contributes to strong performance reviews, receiving a promotion, and a win-win for you and your boss. And so, learning to master managing up means that your own progression is that much more attainable.

The second benefit comes from making yourself into your boss’s right-hand person (used in the generic sense). Few people are indispensable these days. 

If you can build the reputation of being your boss’s go-to, your boss will have your back or bring you with them to the next big opportunity.

Finally, many female employees are taught to let their work speak for itself. Yet part of the managing up process is to let your boss know where you've been successful and what you've been managing. 

Being clear about where you've made a contribution and demonstrated your effectiveness makes your boss look good. 

This isn't about being boastful, but rather about ensuring that your boss knows who you are and the value you are delivering, to them and the organization.

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Managing up when your relationship with your boss is not strong

It's often referenced that an employee doesn't leave an organization — they leave their boss. This is a rather sobering statistic for managers out there. 

But not everyone has the luxury of leaving an organization in these financially tight times. Or, if you see a future in the organization despite your boss, it may mean sticking it out and getting the best results from your current position. 

While we hope that our boss will take an interest in your learning style, they're often too busy. So adapting your communication style to your boss’s style is often a strategic move. 

If it’s concise headlines he’s after, rather than delving into the detail, then keep feedback crisp and clear. 

Virtual working is likely to make the relationship with your boss that much harder and more difficult to manage. How exactly are you supposed to interpret those non-verbals when half of the time you’re both off-camera? 

The Zoom close-up (not to mention Zoom fatigue) doesn’t seem to be telling you the full story. So getting clear on the boss’s expectations and deliverables becomes all the more important.

Many coaching clients have offered stories of working with a difficult boss who appears to exhibit bullying behavior. But the key to these tyrannical bosses often lies in posing key questions to your boss and putting yourself firmly in their shoes.

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Managing up and understanding your boss

Most employees feel somewhat intimidated by the idea of managing up, particularly with a senior boss or difficult boss. This is the time to put on your investigative or research hat and get curious about the world from their perspective.

It sounds like a cliche, but the foundational question of, “What’s in it for them?” will serve you well in this relationship too. Getting into the boss’s shoes and viewing the world a little from their perspective can begin to answer critical questions.

Questions to ask yourself (or your manager) include: 

  • What is top-of-mind right now?
  • How is their performance measured — what targets need to be met this quarter?
  • What would make their lives easier?
  • What keeps them awake at night?
  • How would they like to be supported?
  • What's their definition of success?
  • What do they consider urgent versus non-urgent?
  • If you have any feedback, how would they prefer to receive it? In-person, an email or text, over the phone, or during a video call?

One of the key insights to some of these questions might be the company’s strengths profile if you’re lucky enough to have one. 

Whether it’s Gallup’s Strengths Finder or the Enneagram, see if your boss will share key insights about their working style and preferences. This will go a long way to explaining their behaviors and giving you an idea of their preferences.

You don’t have to love your boss to get along effectively. Reaching out can be tricky. But try asking a couple of rapport-building questions, such as those mentioned above. It will go a long way to building a relationship with them.

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How to manage up at work: 8 tips

1. Know what's important to your boss and what their goals are

This is the first and probably most important tip which we detailed above. Ultimately it's your job to support your boss’s success and to make them look like a rock star.

2. Ask questions

Timing is critical, so look for a gap when they aren't particularly hurried or stressed.

Questions you can ask to help you manage up include:

  • What's their workday like? 
  • What are they worried about? 
  • What's overwhelming them right now? 
  • What could they use help with?
  • How do your goals support theirs?
  • What else can I help with?

Try to use your one-on-ones or feedback slot to pose these questions.

3. Develop empathy as a leadership skill

It may be difficult to imagine feeling empathy for your boss, but like everyone else, they're simply human. We may not pretend to understand our boss or to know why they make the choices they do. 

We can try to view the world from their shoes and empathize with the stress and constraints they face. A simple reflection of, “I can imagine today must be a very stressful day,” can go a long way to building a sense of rapport.

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4. Give early warning of potential problems

None of us likes to be the bearer of bad tidings, and the last thing you want to do is go running to the boss at the first sign of trouble. But the average boss wants due warning that trouble is brewing. No one likes these kinds of surprises. 

A recent coaching client knew that the deal she was working on was simply going to miss the deadline. She wasn't the most senior on the team, nor was her direct boss the lead on the deal. 

Her early heads-up to him allowed intervention at a critical point, and she was able to give a full debrief after the trouble was over. At the moment of urgently needing to communicate bad news, keep it short and factual, assigning as little blame as possible.

5. Anticipate their likely response

Having observed your boss in action for a period of time, you know how they'll respond. If you have the explosive type, anticipate the inevitable eruption. 

Remember that they're likely reacting to the situation rather than to you personally. 

Provide the time and space to cool off and have your next steps ready as to how you are going to assist in containing the situation. Alternatively, if your boss is one who needs time to think things over, provide that space before volunteering possible solutions. 

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6. Keep a paper trail

In the flurry of virtual communication these days, actions can get lost in translation. 

Note everything that you are communicating with your boss by phone or on Zoom/Teams in a succinct email summary or project note. Email communication allows your boss the option to respond hours later when they have the gap rather than when you drafted your request. 

7. Know when your boss is most responsive

Know when your boss’s prime time is. If they're an early bird and at their desk early, then chances are they’re best able to respond to issues earlier in the day. 

If, on the other hand, they seem to be an owl and send nocturnal emails, it’s probably fine to shoot them a late-night email, even if you don’t get an immediate response.

Determine whether or not they have key focus periods marked out in their calendar for strategic work and try not to interrupt those. Maintaining a good working relationship with their executive assistant can go some way to determining what mood the boss is in and whether it is a good time to engage.

8. Be a team barometer

Often, the boss is too busy to get into the details and is removed from how the team is coping. 

If you notice that tensions are running high or that certain members are burning the midnight oil, let your boss know. Make suggestions for how the load could be more evenly distributed.

Each of these tips needs careful thought and positioning. Ultimately what you seek is to combine the best of you with the best of your boss to drive the success you are both seeking.

How to manage up: Start managing up today

Learning how to manage up can transform you from just another employee to the go-to person for the tough challenges and growth opportunities. It's a skill that benefits leaders and direct reports at all levels, too.

Now you know what managing up is and why it’s important. Plus, you have some actionable tips to put managing up into practice. It’s time to give it a try!

If you need help, reach out to BetterUp. We help employees build the skills, mindsets, and behaviors needed to perform at their peak, both personally and professionally. Request a demo to learn more.

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Published July 7, 2021

Karen Grant

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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