how to manage up

5 Best Practices for Managing Up

Sarah Katherine Tucker

As managers and individual contributors, we know the term “managing up” carries meaning and weight. It’s no secret that sometimes we need to manage our manager in order to stay on the same page and ensure we’re all reaching for the same goals but learning how to manage up can be downright uncomfortable – like putting on a coat that’s two sizes too small uncomfortable. Not surprisingly, despite the tight sleeves and the fact that the coat won’t zip, we typically choose the small discomfort over the big one that stretches us. However, when you build your “managing up muscle”, you step into a level of accountability and ownership that is empowering and motivating. 

When we think about managing up, many of us automatically recount a slew of bad managers – those bosses that would micromanage unless we kept them up to date every minute on key metrics and projects, the managers that were overextended and therefore pretty hands-off, and the insecure leaders with fragile egos. The reality is, even if we have a perfectly capable leader, we must still learn the art of managing up in order to be successful and grow as a professional.  

The Harvard Business Review defines managing up as, “Being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.” From this vantage point, it doesn’t matter what type of manager you have, but more so your desire to learn, grow, and add value. At the core, managing up is about self-development and building the traits of a good manager within yourself. When done effectively, managing up makes your manager’s job, and yours, easier. Read on to learn how this essential, but sometimes elusive, skill can be built. 

Build a trusting relationship with your manager

Whether you’ve just joined the organization, switched to a new team, or have had the same manager for the last two years, the need to continuously cultivate a trusting relationship that is grounded in mutual respect is important. This means getting to know your manager and understanding their goals, caring about their wellbeing, and celebrating their successes. We all have an innate desire to connect with one another and according to Stephen R. Covey, “trust is the highest form of human motivation.”  

When it comes to building trust, actions speak louder than words and trust doesn’t happen if it’s simply left to chance. You can build trust with your manager through a pattern of focused effort in exhibiting the following behaviors: 

Talk Straight Embrace Constructive Feedback Keep Commitments 
Practice Accountability Show Loyalty Deliver Results 

Understand your manager’s communication style: 

We all have a different way of communicating with others and our style can and does shift based on our audience. When it comes to communicating with your manager, your styles (tone, pitch, enthusiasm, emphasis) may or may not match – and it can depend on the circumstances. Your communication style may also differ philosophically, and this is where becoming aware of your style as well as your manager’s can lead to powerful and productive conversations. 

One major philosophical difference that distinguishes communication styles is the extent to which an individual communicates with emotions or with data. For example, would your manager say something like “I feel like we’re off to a good start this quarter” (emotions), or would your manager say “this quarter, sales are up by 7.2%” (data). There is a key difference in how your manager processes information and approaches conversations depending on this philosophical distinction. 

A second major philosophical difference is the extent to which an individual communicates in a linear way (i.e. an individual chooses to start with A then B then C then D going all the way to Z) or in a freeform way (i.e. an individual prefers to skip over most of the details and jump right to Z). Understanding both of these differences can unlock a new level of effective communication between you and your manager. 

Maintain a two-way dialogue:  

Have you ever been asked by your manager to tackle a project, eagerly jumped in, and then some time later realized you had no idea where it aligned in your set of priorities? Your manager was too busy to clarify her expectations and didn’t have time to give you any feedback for a few weeks. Pretty soon you were stressed and burned-out working overtime to get the project, and your regular tasks, completed because, in the absence of clarity, chaos ensues. 

Here’s where managing up ensures you and your manager stay on the same page in terms of timelines and expectations. Managing up offers you an opportunity to develop a two-way dialogue that’s asynchronous instead of a single point in time (i.e. your weekly 1:1). Keeping your manager in the loop, either in-person or via email, on a regular cadence allows you both to maintain alignment on priorities, drive focus on the right set of things, spot roadblocks early on, and get valuable feedback along the way. A structured method (in person, email, via software) and cadence (beginning or end of week) also builds your “managing up muscle” so practice becomes habit.  

Learn how to anticipate your manager’s needs

There are probably only a few folks on earth who can predict the future, but you don’t need to be a trained mind-reader to notice the rituals and routines of your manager. No, not the specific time of day they sneak a bag of Cheetos or the crucial window when they can grab their afternoon cup of coffee without being awake all night. We’re talking about the rituals and routines like the weekly status update your manager spends the better part of a day preparing at the end of the week, or the monthly presentation to the company around KPI achievement.  

When all signs point to your manager being overloaded and stretched beyond capacity, you’re rightly positioned to offer assistance when you know exactly how you can help lighten their load. And, because you’ve invested the time to build trust and communicate effectively, your manager will welcome your support. The result? A relieved manager who was able to delegate and an empowered employee who embraced a learning opportunity. 

When it comes to results – focus on facts, not feelings: 

Even if you or your manager have a communication style that is more influenced by emotion, there’s no substitute for fact when it comes to messaging up. Feelings and emotions are certainly valid, but if you’re managing up about performance and outcomes, data is what you want to point to. This obviously benefits you as an employee as subjective performance processes are a thing of the past. However, focusing on results and outcomes by leveraging data also helps your manager understand what and how work is getting done, and in turn, articulate that to their manager. While many companies are process-focused, the most successful organizations are results-focused so getting comfortable with metrics, measurement, and KPIs benefits both you and your manager. 

A great team happens when individuals perform at their best in an environment of respect, trust, and open communication. Managing up strengthens the employer-employee relationship and is a catalyst for employee engagement. When you feel empowered to take ownership of your career through managing up, it has a trickledown effect that positively impacts your productivity and morale. So, while it may be uncomfortable to practice managing up, perhaps you’re ready for a new coat that fits. 

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