What is managing up, and why is it important? Managing up isn’t exactly “managing your boss,” per se, but rather managing your relationship with your boss. It is a strategy allowing you to be the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company. There’s always give and take in the employee-manager relationship; you have expectations of what your manager can do for you, while they expect you to make their work life easier. Managing up will allow you to both get what you need in the most seamless way possible, making for happier, healthier work days.
One of the key facets of your position, that will also make the managing up process that much easier, is to understand what your boss is striving to achieve. What are his or her strategic priorities? Ideally these will be the individual priorities of your manager, but if they haven’t established those yet, your team or company priorities can function as a good proxy.
Once you’ve determined your manager’s top priorities, figure out how you’re involved, whether directly or indirectly. Think about the potential roadblocks in the way of reaching those priorities, and how you can help navigate around those, or remove them altogether.
Another key to managing up is understanding your manager and their workstyles. Do they prefer to establish priorities, delegate tasks, and give feedback in one-on-one meetings, or are they more of a bulleted list in an email type of manager? Where do they fall on the spectrum of processing information: visual, auditory, kinesthetic?
Along with understanding how to effectively communicate with your manager, you need to be very aware of what their biggest pet peeves are. Once you have a handle on what drives them crazy, you can be sure to avoid any of these behaviors.
Ultimately, you are working for your manager, and it’s up to you to adapt to a style that will work cohesively with their style.This can be a hard pill to swallow, and sometimes you can find a happy middle ground between your workstyle and your manager’s.
For example, if you like to verbally process everything but your boss is more of the brief, bullet-pointed email type, send the email to your boss and then find a trusted colleague with whom you can verbally process the information.
Here comes some more of that give-and-take. If you expect your manager to be responsive to your needs, it is critical that you are extremely responsive to their needs, too. Do give your manager the benefit of the doubt that they can’t always be immediately responsive to you, especially if they have to travel often or spend their days in meeting after meeting.
Agree on a system for getting in touch when a truly urgent situation comes up. Once this is in place, only rely on it when the situation is truly critical.
Keep and feed your own monkeys
This classic HBR article about managing the monkeys is one of our favorites. You don’t want to be the employee that leaves “monkeys” hanging on your boss’s back. When you take on a project for your manager, make sure you get the input you need from them right away, then take the initiative to complete the project yourself. Any next steps that need to be completed are on your plate once you’ve taken ownership.
Along those same lines, move items as far along as possible without seeking input from your manager. If you have been given ownership of a task, make decisions on it confidently and answer your own questions as much as possible. Presenting an endless list of questions and challenges on something will make your manager feel less confident in your ability to get the task done.
It is crucial that you honor your boss’s time. When you do need to sit down with them and roadmap something, make sure you find a time that will work for them, set an agenda and stick to it, making sure your meeting stays on track.
Your overall purpose, essentially, is to make your boss look good. When your boss looks good, you look good, too, regardless of whether you get outward praise for a job well done or the inner satisfaction of knowing how you contributed to a successful effort. In addition to making your boss look good through achievement of their goals, you can also give him or her genuine praise and appreciation in front of other team members by highlighting their input on the projects you’ve led.
You also make you and your boss look good when you anticipate their needs before they even speak them. Anticipating their needs ahead of time will come naturally when you understand their goals and workstyles. Do a regular check of their calendar and look ahead to what’s coming down the pipeline days and weeks ahead, then think about how you can make yourself more helpful.
One other proactive method in making your boss look good is to make sure they never get blindsided. If you know bad news is coming, give your boss a heads-up on the details of the situation, as well as the corrective action plan you’ve already put in place.
Working through challenges
Coworkers will disagree at times, and you and your manager are no exception. You shouldn’t be afraid to push back or disagree with your manager, but make sure you find the right time and place to do that. While there may be an occasional open forum where it’s appropriate to do this, often times a private, one-on-one conversation is the best opportunity to air your concerns.
Of course, not all relationships will be all things rosy. If you find you are struggling in your relationship with your manager, try to pinpoint the root cause. Is one of you not meeting the other’s expectations? Do your workstyles clash? Is there a misunderstanding between you? Once you’ve identified the challenges that are getting in the way of an effective work relationship, speak candidly about them and try to determine the best path forward to work through them.
Occasionally, the best path forward is to find a way to responsibly transition into a different role. Make sure you are networking with your boss’s peers and supervisors, as well. Having advocates and a strong network outside of your manager will help open more doors in the chance you find yourself looking to change roles.
Ultimately, if you can get a good grasp of what your boss’s strategic priorities are, get comfortable with their workstyle, and play your role in supporting them to their (and your) fullest potential, you’re doing the dirty work of managing up. When you are adept at managing up, you will be able to maximize both your time and your boss’s time, and every one will win in the end.