Almost every one of us reports to someone—whether it is the Manager, Vice President, CEO or Board of Directors. It is a rare person who is not accountable to someone in their professional life. While the concept of “Managing Up” often has a negative connotation, when done well, it is a way of achieving the best possible results for you, your organization—and your boss.
Contrary to popular belief, managing up is not political maneuvering, manipulation or “kissing up”. We all know that leadership and management is all about relationships. Effective managers manage relationships with their direct reports AND their bosses. Those who only manage up are the ones that give managing up a bad reputation. Those who only manage down can’t effectively advocate for their team.
Often, when we don’t have a great relationship with our boss, we assume that it is a “personality conflict”. However, we probably get along just fine with people in other parts of our life with different personalities. With our boss, it is more likely that we have unrealistic assumptions or expectations about the relationship. It’s important to remember that you and your boss have a relationship based on mutual dependence. Your boss needs you to do your job effectively so they can do theirs—that’s why they hired you. You need your boss as well, no matter how well know and do your job. You need them to get you the help and information you need to do your job well. They play a critical role in linking you to the rest of your company and have the kind of access that you probably don’t. They also can help you ensure that your goals are consistent with those of the company. Despite this mutual dependence, you need to assume primary responsibility for your own career and development.
Very often people believe that if they are loyal to a company, do a good job and “go along to get along”, someone will come along and put a tiara on their head, thank them and hand them a promotion. While being this employee may enable you to keep your job, it certainly does not guarantee promotion or recognition. Sheryl Sandberg, in Leaning In referred to this as the Tiara Syndrome. In reality, you and you alone are responsible for deciding how you are going to stand out amongst all the others waiting for the tiara. Those who stand out in the crowd are those who align their goals and priorities with those of their boss and their company.
Managing this mutual dependence with your boss requires that you have a good understanding of both your boss AND yourself in some critical areas and will result in the development of a good working relationship—something that will get you much further than a friendship in the long run. Try to appreciate your boss’ goals and pressures. Clarify what their organizational and person objectives are. Touch base with them regularly on this as priorities change. Recognize the pressures they may be under. Chances are good that they have a boss as well! Understand their strengths and weaknesses. Identify their strong suits and blind spots. Utilize their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, making their life easier. Most importantly, figure out their preferred style of working and communicating. Do they like to hear from you via formal meetings, phone calls or emails? Find out the kind of information they want from you and the frequency that they want it. Be sensitive to your boss’ work style and attempt to meet it—even if it is different than yours.
You are the other half of this relationship, so it is also important to understand yourself. After all, this is the half of the relationship that you have more control over. Know your own needs, strengths and weaknesses. What is your personal style and what impact does it have on others? What about you or your style impedes or facilitates working with your boss? If you’re not sure—ask for feedback. Adjust your style in response to your boss’ preferred method.
When it comes to receiving information, people are either listeners or readers. If your boss is a listener, brief them on updates in person and then follow up with a memo. If they are readers, cover important information in a memo and then meet with them to discuss it. In decision making, if they prefer to be involved in decisions, touch base with them on a regular and informal basis to keep them in the loop. If they prefer to delegate, they will still expect you to come to them with major problems and inform them of anything important. However, be sure to come with solutions. Assess your similarities and differences and figure out how to draw on each other’s strengths and make up for each other’s weaknesses.
It is important that your expectations are in sync with those of your boss. This is rarely spelled out and it is up to you to find out what their expectations are and to communicate yours to your boss to determine if they are realistic and in line with theirs and those of your company. It is also your job to try to influence your boss to buy in to what is a priority for your team. You are responsible for controlling the flow of information to your boss, keeping in mind their preferred work style. Make sure there are no surprises. Even good ones can backfire.
The most disabling thing to a boss is having someone that they cannot depend on or trust. Do not make promises you can’t keep. It is better to be honest about what you can produce than to not meet a deadline or objective. If you don’t agree on something, discuss it with them privately. If it is non-negotiable, agree to disagree and move on by presenting a unified front to others. Do not play down issues to make a bad situation seem better. This undermines your credibility. Try not to go over your boss’ head if possible. Your first approach should always be to talk to them directly.
Be respectful of your boss’ time and resources. Be selective about what you ask for and make sure it is something that is important. Capitalize on their unique strengths to help you and your team achieve mutual goals.
Learning to manage up will save you time in the long run because you will be focused on what is really important to you, your boss and your company. It will simplify your job by avoiding unproductive communication and frustration and will position you better to advocate for your team. If we want someone to hear and understand what we have to say, we have to learn to speak their language, not expect them to learn ours.