The 6 secrets of managing up

You should be your boss's partner, not their victim.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Mar 2017

Whether our boss is a tyrant or an incompetent, whether we think we know better or just don’t like being told what to do, most of us have at some point or another wished we could turn the tables on our manager. Be in charge for a while, see how they like it.

Of course, in reality we are constantly ‘managing up’. Management isn’t something that just cascades down the org chart. Every time you ask anyone to do anything, you are in a sense managing them. Every time you write a to-do list, you are in a sense managing yourself. In neither case do people always do what they’re told.

Nevertheless, managing up is arguably one of the most important skills for any ambitious go-getter. It involves not only setting your superiors’ impression of you and your potential, but also establishing a business relationship that works for you, them and the wider organisation. In other words, it affects both how effective you appear and how effective you actually are.

But when the person you’re managing has the power to make your Monday to Friday miserable, to raise your salary or to fire you, the way you do it matters. So what’s the secret?

1. Understand your boss

‘Knowing who you’re managing up is the number one thing. Ask questions, observe, learn, use personality profiling tools to profile your manager,’ advises Evelyn Cotter, founder and coach at Seven Career Coaching.

The point is to get a deep understanding of who your manager is, and crucially what they need. Once you know how you can help them and how they’re likely to react, you’ll be in a much better position to support them effectively, which will then foster a relationship that can support you.

Just make sure your perceptive profiling doesn’t come across as creepy. ‘Tell me about your childhood’ is unlikely to make the cut.

2. Don’t be sycophantic

Being helpful to your boss and understanding what you can do to make her life easier does not mean being a snivelling sycophant. Brown-nosing, as the Americans delightfully call it, will earn contempt from colleagues and managers alike.

‘It needs to be authentic and not contrived,’ says Cotter. ‘Managing up is not manipulation. At its best, it's well-thought out, self-aware actions centred around the strengths and weaknesses of your manager and of course, yourself. It's about self-awareness and strategic thinking for advancing your career.’

Keep it focused on the organisation’s goals to make sure you don’t become too self-serving.

3. Communicate

If you don’t think your manager is getting the best out of you, it might not be entirely their fault. You may need more praise and recognition, or you may be unhappy about something, but have you actually told them?

‘In most cases managers take their lead from you. Your manager can only know what you need if you tell them,’ says Hywel Berry, talent network director at the Mind Gym.

Of course, tact and understanding are still required. You can’t go blurting that they’re doing a crap job and expect everything to immediately sort itself out. ‘Find a way to explain not only what you need but how they can supply it in a way that works with their job. Asking a remote manager for a face to face sit-down every week may be simply impossible, but asking for an hour on Skype and being willing to be flexible on the time may suit everyone perfectly.’

As with most communication, it’s give and take.

4. Learn to say no

No is a beautiful, underrated word. While letting it out there unaccompanied may be a satisfying response to an unreasonable request, it’s probably not wise when that request comes from your line manager.

The art of saying no is largely about being aware who you’re saying no to, and tailoring it to them. Some people may require a more subtle phrasing.

‘We need to understand what type of person they are and what potential emotional tripwires they may have. For some people, their status is key, and thus to challenge that is asking for trouble. For others, it may be that they require loyalty from their team, but loyalty doesn’t necessarily mean agreement,’ says Berry.

You will also have to accept that you won’t get your way, no matter how firm or reasonable your are. ‘Sometimes it’s about choosing your battles,’ adds Cotter.

5. Own up to your mistakes

Holding your hands up and confessing where you’ve gone wrong can be even harder than saying no. The same rules apply for your apology in terms of knowing your audience, but there’s no getting around the fact that you need to be honest and upfront about it.

‘Most managers respect honesty and solutions. They may not be happy that a mistake has been made but if the first they hear about it is us coming to tell them as honestly as possible what has happened and that we have already created a solution for it, it gives them the best opportunity to move past the problem as quickly as possible,’ says Berry.

6. Get off to a good start

As useful as all this is, changing a dysfunctional relationship is far harder than getting it right the first time round. It helps not to just let it happen, says Cotter. She suggests having a plan before you start the role, thinking about how you want to be managed, what your goals are, and what you need to communicate to get things moving in that direction.

‘Be consistent in your behaviour – consistency is how we train people to treat us,’ Cotter says.

Remember that no matter how carefully you try to manage your boss, there are ultimately no text book answers. Like managing a direct report, how to effectively manage up depends enormously on the exact people and the exact situations involved. But if you have an idea how to do it in an ideal world, at least you know what to aim for. 

Image credit: Andrew and Hobbes/Flickr

A very quick guide to profiling your boss


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