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How to Manage Upwards and Excel at Managing Your Manager!

By Preethi Jathanna

Senior Writer for HR and Remote Work

How to Manage Upwards and Excel at Managing Your Manager!

It's important to cultivate a healthy and positive work relationship with your boss. This person will have a hand in your professional development and even influence your attitude towards the organization. And while there’s a lot you can learn from them, have you ever wanted to learn how to manage upwards?

We find upward management one of those skills that is best acquired on the job. It hinges on your ability to communicate both up and down, thereby avoiding overpromising, and under-delivering. In this post, we will go into how to excel at managing upwards.

1. What is Meant by Managing Upwards?

Managing upwards is a bottom-top managerial approach that sees employee and manager (or boss) working as a team on the same end goal. I like to think of it as a subordinate adapting their work style according to how well they know their manager. When done right, upward management optimizes the workload and keeps all involved parties informed. It lets either or both parties address problems before they get out of hand.As the Harvard Business Review puts it, managing up is about ‘being the most effective employee you can to create value for your boss and your company’. 

Learning how to manage upwards keeps the business running like a well-oiled machine. People know what they’re accountable for and can give and take credit where it is due.

The truth is, upward management isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It depends on how you and your boss are as people and the existing dynamic between them, you and the rest of the team. 

Is it a delicate situation? Yes.

Is it needed? Absolutely, because we’re conditioned to think managers are all-knowing perfectionists. Managers cannot always be good or bad. But they are human, which means they make mistakes too, no matter how seasoned they are. The trouble is, the stakes are higher when managers make a mistake. This is precisely why they need someone to help them set expectations and manage goals. 

In fact the laundry list of challenges in managing upwards include

  1. Being unable to anticipate unexpected changes in circumstances.
  2. Overlooking or missing information.
  3. Being swamped with bigger responsibilities.
  4. Insufficient bandwidth.
  5. Suboptimal and outdated processes.
  6. Blindspots
  7. Living in denial of a broken process.
  8. Refusing to consider a different strategy

2. Why is Managing up Important?

Managing up is important because it helps bring out both the manager and subordinate’s best traits. Learning how to manage upwards isn’t about manipulating your boss into taking a decision you want them to take. It's about mutual respect and forging a synchrony in ethics and commitment. 

An employee who manages up effectively is one who can

  1. Foresee problems and bring concerns up on time.
  2. Adjusts their approach to suit their manager’s style.
  3. Speak the truth to their leaders.
  4. Be realistic, practical and reasonable when setting deadlines.
  5. Use both tact and fact when presenting information or evidence.

3. How do you Manage Up Effectively?

3.1. Observe Your Boss’s Work Style

No two managers or bosses would necessarily use the same approach to a problem. It's how they think that makes them different. They may not even follow the same order of steps, or might have a preference when it comes to how they communicate, and expect communication.

This is where you come in. You can either observe, or outright ask what their style of working entails. I’d definitely recommend asking upfront so that you have it on record that you have tried to understand what your manager wants, and what you’re doing to make it happen.

Once you understand your leader, you’ll know what does or doesn’t matter to them, how they came to a decision and what factors can cause them to reconsider or look at things differently. 

3.2. Establish a Proactive Relationship

Now that you know what your manager is like, you should be proactive about cultivating your work relationship.  Don’t take relationship building to mean that you have to agree to everything in order to be in your manager’s good graces. It's about strategizing how, why and how often you convey information to them. It's also about setting boundaries and specifying where your responsibilities end, and limitations lie.

This is a crucial managing upwards exercise because only you know you’re capable of doing, or getting done. And making that clear to your manager helps everyone meet goals. 

3.3. Insist on Unity and Uniformity

Workplace conflicts and politics aren’t going to die out anytime soon, but there are measures you can do as the in-between person to minimize its negative impact. 

Firstly, insist on standardizing communication. There should be a stepwise process based on the urgency of the issue or task, who to take it up with and who needs to be informed. 

I’d go so far as to say that you should do a RACI (Responsibility, Accountability, Consulting and Informing) to make sure information comes in and goes out to the right and relevant people.

Team unity automatically follows uniform communication. When everyone is clear on what is being delegated and who they should work with, tasks are more likely to start, progress and end on schedule.

3.4. Deliver News in an Upfront and Realistic Way

Being able to anticipate something going wrong and convey it when it does (the classic, ‘this isn’t going to work.’)  is what differentiates upward management from regular management. News, both good and bad, has to be circulated directly to the right people. Good news is always a pleasure to be on the receiving end of. But funnily enough, it's the bad news that reaches faster! If you’re in charge of a team and reporting to a higher manager, updates from members go through you and then to the next level. 

If the news is bad, you’ll need to assess it objectively and prepare to present it based on how your boss is likely to react. 

When it comes to bad news, our instinct is to cover up, sugarcoat or downplay just how bad it is. This is because we fear that the situation may reflect poorly on us and jeopardize our career. 

If things go south, it's best to convey it upfront so that your boss isn’t blindsided in a meeting or ends up being the last person to know. You can then work together with their cooperation and come up with a solution to salvage the situation. 

The information you’ll need will include

  1. Who all were involved.
  2. Was everyone clear on the expectation?
  3. What bottlenecks came up?
  4. When did the matter first come up and when did it reach you?

3.5. Work Together to Set Goals

Goal setting should be based on the three things- a) The priority, b) The bandwidth of the people required to execute it and c)  historic performance. Work together to set goals leaving a margin for anticipated changes or delays.

Realistically speaking, everything cannot be a priority. And as such, you should remind your manager so that goals can be scaled by meaningful work. 

If the frequency of catch ups has been set with mutual agreement, then you should use these opportunities to keep your manager informed of the work schedule, including setbacks that will inevitably delay any particular milestone.

3.6. Communicate Expectations Early

Your boss isn’t the only one to set expectations. You should also have the kind of rapport that lets you set expectations for yourself, as well as for whoever is reporting to you.  Here’s the thing, your boss may not interact directly with everyone on the team. As the person working closest to him or her, the manager will entrust you to delegate work to people based on their availability, skills and other members they will need to be in touch with. This is why you should communicate expectations to those people you’re assigning work to, and clarify deadlines and outcomes before they get started.

3.7. Let them Know What Makes you Better at Your Job

Your manager isn’t psychic (at least, I hope not!). Let them know what helps you stay productive so that they can get you the tools to help you succeed.

This hinges on how communicative you are with them. So long as there’s a process internally for progress updates, your manager will encourage you to work independently while informing them of how you’re getting on.

The rapport you build will also determine their reaction to your requests for reasonable adjustments. If they see evidence of your productivity, they’re more likely to trust you to make the right calls and to inform them when and why you’ve done so. 

When you tell your boss what works and doesn’t work for you, they have a better understanding of your approach too. They will know when to reach out to you without disrupting your flow. 

In the bid to not bother your boss with calls and emails, you might be inclined to struggle alone on a problem.I find that counterproductive though, because it prolongs the uncertainty and leaves your boss to make an assumption. Keeping a manager in the loop regarding what’s derailing your productivity can help them jump in or direct you to resources that can help. 

The lesson here is timely communication reduces uncertainties. Knowing that you’re reliable increases your boss’s trust in you! 

3.8. Offer and Ask for Feedback

Ask your boss to provide feedback on your quality of work. And don’t hold back on giving feedback as well, because they can use it to improve their leadership, critical thinking and decision making ability. They will even appreciate you for bringing the focus back on the big picture.

3.9. Open the Floor to Networking

Your professional relationship is an ambassador of the company culture and reflects the values you embody at the workplace.

When trust and transparency are established, it's natural for you and your manager to want the best for each other. Attend networking events together to be introduced to a wider net of professionals. Either you or your manager can open doors and create new market opportunities from the standpoint of promoting your business.

3.10. Be Appreciative and Supportive

A mutual show of support is crucial to how to manage upwards. 

Never forget to thank your boss for helping you out and for supporting your growth within the organization. 

Although Boss’s day was on October 16,  there’s no harm in letting your manager know how much you appreciate them and what you’ve learned from them.

Even if you part ways with the organization or they’re no longer managing you, your manager can still have enough clout to recommend and refer you. This works the other way around too, if your manager is up for a promotion.

4. FAQs

4.1. How do you influence upwards?

How to manage and influence upwards hinges on regular communication with your manager. Over time and by observation, you’ll familiarize yourself with their routine and adapt your working style to match theirs.

4.2. How do you manage your boss developing a perfect working relationship?

While there’s no perfect working relationship, you can manage your boss by helping to bring out their skills without downplaying yours.

4.3. What should you not do when managing up?

These pitfalls are to be avoided when managing up

  1. Sitting on bad news
  2. Badmouthing them to others.
  3. Dumping your responsibilities onto someone else and transferring accountability.
  4. Covering up mistakes 
  5. Repeating something known to cause offence or annoyance.
  6. Take sides and lose objectivity.
  7. Keep quiet when someone else is taking the fall for something they did not do.
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