Six Key Principles of “Managing Up” for Better Results at Work

If you have frustrations with your boss, you’re far from alone. Most people do, even when that boss is a good manager. Maybe your manager isn’t responsive enough to email, or she cancels meetings at the last minute, or she changes her mind after you thought a decision had been made, or she resists making decisions at all. Whatever your particular frustration, at least part of the answer probably lies in what’s commonly called “managing up.”

Some people think “managing up” is about manipulating your boss or managing her perceptions, but it’s not. It’s about working with your boss in the way that will produce the best possible results for your team, while at the same time making both your and your manager’s lives easier.

Whatever your particular manager is like, here are six key principles of managing up that will probably help you get better results – or at least keep your stress level down.

1. Focus on what’s within your control. Rather than stewing over an aspect of your boss that you can’t change, it’s far more productive to understand that her working style may not change dramatically, and – instead of trying to make her into a different person — to find ways to work effectively within that context.  That means that you have to get clear in your own mind about what you can and can’t control, and then focus on making the pieces you can control go as smoothly as possible. For instance, if you have a busy manager who frequently cancels your weekly meeting, you could say, “I know you’re really busy – but can I get 10 minutes on your calendar?” You also might anticipate that she’s likely to cancel your meeting tomorrow and, as a safety measure, grab her for two minutes after today’s staff meeting to ask your most pressing question  – thus preventing yourself from getting frustrated if she does cancel again.

2. Get aligned. A lot of manager-employee frustrations stem from a lack of alignment about what the employee’s priorities should be, how work should be conducted, and how the relationship should operate. You can fix that by talking explicitly and regularly about your goals and priorities for any given time period and what success would look like for you, and making sure she agrees. What’s more, to ensure that you’re both on the same page when it comes to how you’ll operate, it can be enormously helpful to raise potentially tricky situations – like a difficult client or an obstacle with an allied organization – and talk through how you plan to handle them. By getting in synch on these sorts of things up-front, you’ll be able to act with more confidence (knowing that you won’t be unpleasantly surprised to learn that your boss had an entirely different take on the topic than you did).

3. Make your manager’s job easy. Ask yes/no questions, keep emails short, remind her about context or past decisions where they’re relevant, and whenever possible, suggest solutions. Saying, “What should I do about X?” puts the problem on her. You make it easier for both of you if you say, “Here’s the deal with X. I’ve thought about A, B, and C, and I think we should do C because… Does that sound okay to you?”

4. Pay attention to what your manager really cares about. If you pay attention to what kinds of questions your boss asks or seems worried about, you’ll draw larger messages about the sorts of things that she’ll care about in the future. You can then anticipate those things in advance and address them before she has to ask, which will make you both happier with the relationship. (It’s also useful to understand why she focuses where she does, so if you’re ever unsure, ask! Asking “What’s driving that?” or “Just so I understand, which part of this is worrying you?” can often lead to a conversation that gives you both more insight into where the other is coming from.)

5. Ask for feedback. While ideally your boss would be offering feedback on her own, in reality she may be pulled in numerous other directions. Make it easy on her – and get yourself what you need – by raising it yourself. Simply saying “Can we debrief about how this went?” and then offering your own view and asking for hers can make it easier for her to tell you what she really thinks.

6. Be emotionally intelligent. Sometimes people who are extremely emotionally intelligent about the people around them forget to apply the same sensitivity to their boss. Your boss is human, so she might have times when she’s grumpy, frustrated, or stressed out. Be thoughtful!

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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