If you’ve seen the phrase “managing up” floating around your newsfeed recently, well, it’s not a coincidence. According to Google Trends, the search term “manage up” gained all-time high popularity in 2022 and has continued to rise ever since.
The remote work trend can explain the growing interest in managing up. As more and more people can work from anywhere, friction in communication and collaboration at work increases. Being able to manage up has become even more crucial and challenging.
It is undeniable that managing up is a desirable skill set in today’s workplace. Mastering managing up will help you work with ease with your managers and fast-track your career.
This article will show you everything you need to know about managing up, from A to B, and B stands for Best Managing Up Employee Your Boss Have Ever Known.
What is Managing Up?
Many people have joined the conversation about what managing up is:
To Wes Kao, Co-founder of Maven - a $25.1M funded startup, managing up is a secret because most of us think our boss should manage us, not us manage them.
In her book Managing Up: How to Move up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, Mary Abbajay viewed managing up as “consciously and deliberately developing and maintaining effective relationships with supervisors, bosses and other people above you in the chain of command.”
According to Dana Rousmaniere from Harvard Business Review, at its core, managing up means “being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.”
To sum up, to manage up is to realize and act accordingly to the three points below:
- Your boss has a huge impact on your career’s success and satisfaction.
- Your boss’s biggest concern is not your career’s success and satisfaction.
- You have the full capability to make the relationship between you and your boss work for you, for your boss and for the company.
What Does Managing Up (Actually) Look Like? + Tips
By now, you may wonder, but what does managing up look like in action? How can you start practicing managing up from today?
Below are some practical tips from us:
Find out your boss’s work preferences (and also yours)
Similar to a romantic relationship, you and your partner (in this case, your manager) have similarities and differences in communication and work style. A (work) relationship works when both sides understand each other’s preferences. To manage up, answer the following questions:
- What is your boss’s communication style? Passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive?
- What is your boss’s leadership style? Transformational or transactional?
- When is your boss’s focus time? (To avoid disturbing them) And when is your boss most responsive?
- Does your boss prefer receiving updates in a report or in a meeting, or both?
Before you ask your managers, observe their behaviors. Then assess your own preferences and see how you can accommodate your boss while maintaining healthy boundaries. Free personality tests like 16Personalities may help.
By simply approaching your boss at a time they prefer and in a way they prefer, you have significantly increased your chances of getting a “Yes” from them and made life easier for both.
Align, align, align
Alignment is crucial. You don’t want to waste time perfecting low-priority work that you thought was high-priority. You don’t want to deliver an impressive product only to know you misunderstood the expectations. You don’t. And guess what? Your boss is not a fan of that, either, because it hurts the team's productivity.
Start managing up by proactively communicating openly and frequently with your managers about:
- Your company and your team's priorities
- The specific objectives and expectations for the tasks assigned to you
- How regularly should you update the progress with your manager? On which platform?
Take accountability and step in your team alignment process. Do you know that it’s a common practice in tech teams, including the ones at Facebook and Google, to do daily stand-ups? In daily stand-ups, team members align on their priorities, tasks done, tasks to do, and blockers.
You can introduce to your manager a daily stand-up tool for your team. It can be as simple as a Slack bot like Lexi Daily. And one day, your boss will thank you for that!
Bring bad news (and provide solutions)
People who don’t manage up wait for their managers to point out a problem and tell them to fix it. Your boss will appreciate it when you can anticipate issues and inform them as soon as possible.
After all, your boss can’t be a know-it-all, and a problem that goes unsolved will be a ticking bomb to failure for the whole team. You will gain your manager’s trust and credit if you can prevent that.
Being the bearer of bad news works best when you’re also the problem solver. You can use the below formula:
- I notice we have a problem with…
- And I think we have three solutions, including A, B and C…
- I recommend solution A because…
Don’t worry if you don’t have the solutions to every issue because it’s simply not possible. But be careful, frequently raising blockers without solutions won’t benefit you, either.
Help your boss stay on the ground
Managing expectations is an important part of managing up. Many people talk about their bosses asking too much from them. Few people actually know the effective techniques to manage expectations.
If you feel like your manager is overly demanding, take charge of the situation and ask yourself these two questions:
1. Can you meet your manager’s expectations if you just need to try a bit harder?
Managers have become managers because they outperformed as an individual contributor. They have high standards for their own work.
Don’t be surprised when they apply their standards to you. Stretching your ability and going out of your way to get the work done will benefit your career in the long run.
2. If you really can’t, what information is your boss lacking to come to the same conclusion as yours?
As managers need to look at things in a bigger picture, at times, they may miss the details. To manage up, help your manager understand the realistic time, cost, and effort needed to achieve the goals they set out.
You can use records from past successful projects to back your explanation. For example, “When we launched product A, the outcome was fantastic, and we needed X weeks to gain traction.”
However, you probably can tell from your own experience that convincing bosses to lower their expectations is not easy. In a lot of cases, the best thing to do is to trust them and try going in their direction. If so, make sure you:
- Give your manager early heads up if the deadline can't be met or the cost will exceed your budget.
- Keep a record of your progress so that you can conclude with facts why it works or doesn't work.
Step up to grow
You always want to have the chance to develop new capabilities, but that chance is still yet to come? Don’t wait for your boss to offer you a formal job rotation or training.
Many employees don’t realize that the optimal way to grow is to offer help. Does your boss or anyone else in your team need some extra help with a challenging task? Is that something you would love to learn about? Observe and let your manager know you can help.
Remember that it must start with you doing your job well first. Otherwise, your manager will be hesitant to delegate more responsibilities to you.
Keep in mind that offering help (or even managing up as a whole) may seem to be threatening to insecure bosses since they are afraid that you will take over their position.
What comes from the heart goes to the heart
At the end of the day, let’s keep it real. Managing up is all about building an effective working relationship with your manager, so that both you and your manager can work harmoniously together and achieve the company's goals. Won’t it be nice if that relationship is genuine?
Your manager is just another human being with fears and aspirations. Maybe during lunch or your one-on-one meetings with your boss, you can try to get to know them a little better by bringing up more personal topics:
- What are your core values in life and work?
- What is the ultimate goal you want to achieve in your career?
- What was the biggest lesson you learned in your 20s?
- How do you keep yourself motivated?
You can have a positive relationship with your manager if you put in the effort. Like Michelle Obama said in her biography Becoming, “It’s harder to hate up close.”
Once you know your boss on a deeper level, they may be among your favorite people. Who knows?
Finally, no managing up techniques will work if you suck at your job. So as you take your first steps on the journey to managing up, aim to be a standard 5-star employee as well:
- Set high standards for what you do
- Meet the deadlines of your tasks
- Propose better ways of doing things
- Fewer complaints and no office politics
How Managing Up Benefits You
Managing up may seem like hard work because good things don’t come easy. Being able to manage up will do you good not only for your career progression but also for your mental health.
Career-wise, managing up will increase the likelihood that:
- You get your work done.
- Your manager acknowledges your capabilities.
- Your manager gives you positive performance reviews.
- You get promoted.
Even when you decide to leave the company, having your previous manager say nice things about you will definitely help you land your next dream job.
Managing up will help enhance your well-being as well:
- When you have fewer clashes with your boss, you experience less stress and anxiety.
- When you are recognized at work, you feel a greater sense of self-esteem.
- When you take ownership of the relationship with your manager (and your work as a whole), you empower yourself to be the one in control, not the victim of the situation.
Lastly, to be fair, not all bosses are created equal. Some have formal leadership training, and some don’t. Some are approachable, and some are socially awkward. Managers are also human beings who desire to improve in certain aspects. Give them a helping hand, and they will help you back.
When Should You Manage Up?
Remember the day when you started your first job ever? That's when you should begin to manage up. By starting early, you lay the foundation for your future days at work and shape your professional identity.
So to those of you who that day hasn't come yet, congratulations! You won the jackpot to 100x your career development. You have learned what many people took years to realize.
And for most of us, who entered the workforce thinking more about the day we would be in a position to manage down than to manage up, it's okay. It's never too late to start managing up. Reflect on your relationship with your boss to see what's working and what's not. Refresh it by trying out the managing up techniques we discussed above. Building effective relationships can happen at any point in your career and will always bring you fruitful outcomes.
Managing Up with 9 Types of Bosses
Here are how you should manage up with nine iconic types of bosses. Inspired by the book HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, with a touch of humor.
1. If you have a whole new boss
Your manager just left the company, and you have to build your managing up credit from scratch with the new manager. What is your plan to impress the new leader?
Your first instinct is maybe to prepare a pitch about your achievements to make sure the new boss will not underestimate you. Unfortunately, that’s the plan of most people. Imagine how overwhelmed the new manager would feel.
Instead, manage up and support the new manager with what they actually need:
- Give it time: Talk about yourself and your projects, one titbit at a time.
- Observe work style: Observe the new manager’s communication and leadership styles, and try to accommodate them.
- Provide context: Give the new boss precious honest context about the team’s past failures, successes and dynamics.
2. If you have a Zoom boss
It is common these days that you can have a manager who you have never met in person. In that case, try the below tactics to manage up:
Discuss expectations and set ground rules
Does your team have a project management tool? What and how often should you update your progress? Do emails have to be answered within 24 hours or shorter? And how about messages on Slack or Teams? Remote managers often struggle to follow the progress of their teams, so they will appreciate it if you bring up those issues.
Have the water cooler chat
When you meet your boss in the office, it’s easier to randomly drop a joke or a more personal chitchat, which builds a personal connection. Try to replicate that in the virtual workplace. Why not share with your boss a funny video you saw online? Or start your next meeting by checking in with each other?
Maintain open and honest communication
Miscommunication triples when you work remotely, and it leads to all sorts of conflicts and consequences. Whenever you’re unclear or have different thoughts with your manager, let them know. It may be scary to raise the issue, but your manager will prefer an honest and happy employee to a secretly confused or disagreeing one.
3. If your boss is insecure
You may not recognize an insecure boss at first because they are often disguised as controlling, angry or taking-the-credit boss. If your manager has those symptoms, here is how to manage up and make the relationship better:
- Compliment: Compliments are free. Whenever your insecure manager does something, let them know. Once they have more trust in themselves, they will be more comfortable trusting their employees.
- Update frequently: Insecure bosses will often micromanage to maintain control and a sense of power and importance. Dodge the micromanagement by proactively updating your progress to them yourself.
- Save face: If you have anything to feedback to your insecure manager, talk to them privately and protect their already-fragile confidence. Who wants to be criticized in public anyway, right?
- Cite your manager for your success: Being a team with your manager will be beneficial. Treat your achievements as team achievements to reduce your manager’s worry about you surpassing them.
4. If your boss knows it all
Bosses usually have solid reasons to think that they know it all. However, sometimes it goes too far and hinders their ability to adopt novel ideas. If this is your case, consider managing up with the following tactics:
- Let them discover your idea: If you “pitch” your ideas to your all-knowing managers, they may likely point out flaws and disagree. Instead, try presenting the ideas as drafts and ask for their feedback. Let them pick out the gem within your ideas.
- Show them reality: If you suspect the direction your boss insists will not work, give them the information that will help them see things from your point of view. Make sure to do this in a subtle way. Casually mention the related data from time to time, or let them talk to the people that will give them the missing information.
The key here is not to prove them wrong and let them come to the conclusion themselves.
5. If your boss can’t decide
Your manager is often hesitant to make the decisions you need to move forward with your project? Try out the below suggestions to manage up:
- Supply information: Present all the necessary information to make that decision in a logical and well-organized fashion. Give your manager the reasons to believe that your recommendation will work.
- Build trust: Even better, build trust with your manager over time so that they can delegate the decision-making to you.
- Have a conversation: If the situation has got really urgent, call for a meeting with all the relevant and decisive team members to explain to your manager that they have to make the decision soon to avoid negative business impact.
6. If your boss goes on and on about everything
Having a long-winded boss can be pretty time-consuming. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Check out the solutions below to manage up the situation:
- The root cause: Is it because the bigger boss was around, so your boss felt the need to prove their competency? Or is it really a habit? If the cause is situational, like the former example, try to understand your boss or avoid the situation. If it’s a habit, read the next steps.
- The not-subtle way: Consider talking to your boss directly about this in a friendly manner. There’s a high chance that your boss is actually aware of their bad habit (because you’re surely not the first to confront them), and your reminder will help them regain their brevity.
- The “Your time is precious”: This is the option when you think your boss is not ready for the truth. When you talk to your boss the next time, start the conversation with “I know your time is precious / you’re really busy, so I’ll keep it under X minutes / strictly stick to the agenda.”
7. If your boss under-manage
You have a boss, but you feel like you don’t have a boss. At first, it feels good with all the autonomy and empowerment, until you need help and your manager can’t help because they haven’t followed the situation. Here’s how to manage up your under-manage boss:
- Align with your boss's priorities: If they have higher-priority projects to pay attention to, you may want to align with them if you should also help in those projects. If they’re busy building relationships with clients, higher bosses, or other departments, think about how you can make use of your boss’s connections for your work.
- Express appreciation for guidance: Sometimes, your manager is hands-off because they think you prefer it that way. Let your boss know you appreciate the advice and how they can help.
- Set up regular catch-up: Demand your 1:1s and take advantage of them. You can also schedule catch-up meetings with your boss weekly or even daily. It doesn’t have to be long, 15 minutes in the morning every day would work.
8. If (you think) you’re smarter than your boss
It happens. Your boss is less competent than you. Or at least you think so. How should you manage up in this case? Find our list of dos and don’ts below:
- Be so sure that you're smarter. Believe it or not - your boss is made boss for a reason. Maybe they don't have the technical skills to do hands-on tasks as well as you, but their leadership is superior.
- Try to overthrow your boss. Rarely works.
- Cover up. If your boss is consistently underperforming and/or has caused some catastrophe, speak up to higher levels to save the greater good.
- Be the other puzzle piece your manager needs. Every boss has strengths and weaknesses. Instead of being disappointed about your manager’s shortcomings, think of how you can help them in those areas with your strengths and expertise.
- Look on the bright side. There will always be something you can learn from and respect about any other person you meet. Try to find a quality in your manager that you can genuinely admire.
- Find other mentors. If, after all, your boss is not the manager and mentor you wish you had, why don’t you expand your reach? Your other colleagues can be your mentors in their areas of expertise. Speed up your networking game!
9. If your boss is actually a board of directors
If you’re a CEO and you have an entire board of directors (BOD) to manage up, here are three key things you can consider:
- It all comes down to your shareholders and employees. BOD acts in the best interest of shareholders, and employees are the people who keep your company running. If your shareholders or employees don’t have confidence in you, the BOD won’t either.
- Find directors with valuable perspectives. When your shareholders recruit new directors, suggest to them the relevant background and expertise you need so that the BOD not only acts as a monitoring eye for the shareholders but also as an advisory board for the CEO.
- Evaluate BOD annually. More and more companies evaluate their BOD regularly to ensure only the most suitable and capable directors stay.
How to Managing Up Without Crossing the Line
On a final note, it’s important to remember that managing up is not about overstepping or manipulating your manager. It’s about helping your manager achieve their goals, which in turn will help you achieve your own goals.
While you manage up, make sure you don’t cross the line by:
- Consistently maintaining your professionalism, even in challenging or unfavorable situations. Communicate with respect, adhere to company policies, and demonstrate a high level of integrity in your work.
- Strictly sticking to the official approval system. You shouldn’t sign anything on your boss’s behalf without their approval or carry out an action contrary to what your boss has officially ordered.
- Keeping the relationship between you and your manager constructive and positive. Be solution-oriented and not only give but also ask for constructive feedback.
Effective managing up is all about finding the right balance between asserting yourself and having a harmonious work relationship with your manager. Ultimately, you and your boss should gain value from the relationship.