Managing up: What it is, what it isn’t, and how to do it right

Few topics in the world of business management spark as much confusion as the concept of ‘managing up.’ Going by the name alone, many falsely assume that managing up means picking up the slack for an incompetent boss or project manager. This is risky territory, as trying to do your boss’s job or go over their head rarely ever ends well.

Instead, true managing up is about actively forging a strong working relationship with your manager and other higher-ups. When done correctly, managing up can lead to better decision-making, boosted productivity, and higher levels of job satisfaction.

In fact, a research study by Ladders uncovered that 88% of professionals believe managing up translates to career success in a big way. The type of managing up they’re talking about in the research study differs from what most think the concept is about.

Instead of trying to act as your manager’s manager, managing up is all about aligning your work style and communication style with your boss. It’s about working with your manager instead of against them in order to achieve the best possible outcome. According to the Harvard Business Review, professionals shouldn’t limit managing up only to include their direct manager.

They introduce the concept of ‘managing higher,’ where you set aside time to coordinate with your boss’s boss to provide additional value to your organization. There’s quite a bit to learn (and dispel) about managing up, so read on to learn more.

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What is managing up?

Since a lot of confusion surrounds the topic, it’s tough to find a formal definition for managing up. However, most professionals would agree that managing up is a form of career development that involves actively working towards the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss.

It’s about aligning yourself with your boss so that you can work together in harmony. After all, if you’re at odds with your boss’s management style (and they’re at odds with yours), the chances are very low that you’ll do great work.

Instead of constantly playing tug-of-war between your two styles, managing up involves working toward a win-win through constructive feedback, learning new leadership skills, and aligning with your manager’s goals. Building a healthy relationship with your boss and your boss’s boss will improve your productivity and help you move up in your organization.

It’s crucial to note that managing up isn’t always seamless and smooth sailing. Rather, it involves lots of healthy compromises and a willingness to adapt to each other’s management style. In other words, it requires effort and buy-in from both parties, and it shouldn’t be entirely one-sided.

That means you should be forthcoming about your preferred way of doing things, all while showing an openness to adapt to your manager’s style. For instance, if your work life is all about staying on top of your day-to-day tasks, working with a manager who’s a bit more hands-off can be jarring at first. Yet, by working together, your styles will actually complement one another quite nicely.

What isn’t managing up?

Now that you know more about what proper managing up is, it’s time to talk about what managing up isn’t. As previously stated, there’s no shortage of confusion surrounding the topic, including many misconceptions.

Managing up does NOT involve the following:

  • Going behind your boss’s back (or over their head) to get them in trouble.

  • Kissing up and becoming the boss’s pet.

  • Trying to do your manager’s job due to their perceived incompetence.

  • Picking up the slack for bad bosses by micromanaging them.

  • Attempting to mold a new manager into someone they’re not.

  • Trying to give your manager career advice.

The most important thing to remember is that managing up is never about trying to replace your manager or do their job for them. Instead of replacing your manager, proper managing up involves trying to work with them in the most harmonious way possible.

The idea is to forge a successful relationship instead of constantly butting heads.

That way, you and your manager can work in tandem to tackle the most pressing challenges facing your organization.

How to successfully manage up at your organization

Do you consider your immediate higher-up to be a good manager? Why or why not? Do you wish you could find a way to work with them instead of against them? If so, then you’re ready to learn how to manage up properly.

Rather than trying to do your manager’s job for them, you should take time to learn more about them, their preferred management style, and their career goals. Here’s a look at the top ways you can start managing up the right way.

Uncover your boss’s management & communication styles

managing-up-450x350pxThe first step is to discover your boss’s preferred way of handling work tasks, including how they communicate with team members.

Why is this important?

It is because you can’t achieve harmony with your boss if you aren’t familiar with how they like to handle things. This doesn’t mean that you have to copy their style, just that you should be aware and accepting of it.

By learning your boss’s management style, it’ll become far easier to work with them. For example, instead of guessing how your manager will react to any given situation, you’ll probably already know in advance.

Yet, uncovering your boss’s work preferences can be easier said than done. After all, if you don’t spend lots of time around your manager, how can you hope to learn their management style?

Here are a few tips for finding out how your manager likes to handle business:

  • Observe your boss during the workday to find out when they’re the most busy (their focus time).

  • Pay attention to how they communicate with employees (i.e., do they always send emails, or do they prefer to speak with team members one-on-one?).

  • Are they passive, passive-aggressive, or assertive when speaking to employees?

  • Do they prefer to take a hands-off approach, or are they constantly walking around the office/chatting with staff?

After you have a solid understanding of how your manager likes to do things, it’s time to look inward and reflect on your own preferences.

What’s your communication style? Do you have any similarities or differences from your manager?

If you aren’t sure what your communication and management styles are, there are more than a few ways to find out. A quick and easy way is to take a management style quiz, which will help you pinpoint your exact managing style.

The goal is to find ways to accommodate your boss’s preferences while leaving enough space to do your own thing.

Align with your manager’s goals

Once you start working with your manager’s style instead of against it, aligning with their goals will become possible. You should try to find out not only what your boss’s goals are but also the primary objectives of your organization as a whole. That means checking with your boss’s boss and other executives to uncover the most pressing challenges facing your business.

Not only will this help you be a better manager/employee, but it’ll also reflect well on your character to the main stakeholders at your company. Taking the initiative to align with your manager’s goals shows a real commitment to success, and that likely won’t go unnoticed.

A great way to encourage alignment across the board is to incorporate daily ‘stand-up’ meetings into your schedule. During these briefings, take the opportunity to inform everyone of the organization’s top challenges, priorities, and goals. By managing up in this way, you will help align your organization from top to bottom, which will improve metrics like productivity, efficiency, and employee engagement.

It’s also a good idea to make a habit out of recurring one-on-one meetings with your manager to update them on your progress. Ask them how often they’d like you to report to them to avoid coming off as too forward (i.e., you don’t want to push for weekly meetings if they’d prefer to check in every 2 to 3 weeks instead). Also, ask what their preferred platform is for your 1:1’s, whether it’s in-person, through email, or over a video chat service like Zoom.

Be emotionally resilient

It takes a healthy amount of emotional resilience to properly manage up, even if you tend to get along with your manager very well. The fact is that you won’t always see eye to eye, and you’ll have to compromise at times. However, that doesn’t mean that you should always give up on ideas that you feel passionately about.

Remember, managing up isn’t about always agreeing with your manager. At times, you’ll need to stand strong and stick up for your viewpoint without letting things get too heated.

For example, if your boss wants to move forward with a project that you strongly feel is a distraction from the organization’s top goals, don’t remain silent about it. Calmly and rationally state your reason for disagreeing with your boss, and be open to feedback.

The occasional debate won’t ruin your working relationship. In fact, the opposite is true. Standing by your beliefs while engaging in a civil debate will show that you’re not a suckup or a pushover and will help your relationship with your boss in the long run. Not only that, but it’ll help you gain more respect.

That’s not to say there won’t be times when you should bite the bullet and go with your manager’s idea instead; it’s just that you should use discretion.

The do’s and don’ts of managing up

As with anything else, there are right ways and wrong ways to approach managing up. To ensure your success while helping you avoid pitfalls, here are some do’s and don’ts for learning how to manage up.

Do get to know your boss

Are your boss’s goals and motivations a total mystery to you? If so, then you need to make an effort to get to know them, as uncomfortable as that may sound.

Luckily, getting to know your boss doesn’t have to be awkward or difficult. It’s as simple as knocking on their door and saying something like, “I want to maximize my impact while I’m here, and I know you’ve been in the industry for quite some time. I was wondering if you could set aside some time to discuss your goals, past experiences, and achievements with me.”

Phrasing it in this way puts the ball in their court, and you’re not prying or being nosey. Beyond that, they’ll likely be flattered that you consider them an authority in their industry, which will work in your favor.

Do be proactive

The last thing any manager wants is to have to tell their direct reports every single thing they need to do. That’s why being proactive goes such a long way, especially in terms of learning new skills and reaching out to help.

For example, if there’s a challenging project that your boss is working on, don’t wait for them to ask for your assistance. Instead, speak up and offer to help as soon as you see that they’re falling behind.

Being proactive is also great for picking up important skills. All too often, employees wait for their managers to offer them a new position or additional training.

A surefire way to impress any manager is to further your education and training without any prompting on their part.

Do be authentic

Nobody likes a yes man, and that’s because they aren’t authentic. If you want to find success with managing up, then your relationship with your boss must be genuine. Honesty always pays off in these types of working relationships, especially when you feel strongly about something.

The worst thing you can do is pretend you’re perfectly happy with an idea when, on the inside, you have some valid objections or concerns.

Don’t pay attention to office politics

Office politics basically never lead to anything good, so it’s best to avoid them altogether. Favoritism, gossip, and taking sides are all things you should avoid when managing up. Do your best to treat everyone equally, especially your direct reports.

While at work, it’s best to keep things professional to avoid letting personal feelings get in the way of your goals.

Don’t try to manipulate your boss

Genuine relationships always outshine fake ones, which is why trying to manipulate your boss to get what you want rarely (if ever) pays off. Avoid things like flattering your boss, feeding them false information, and gossiping about other coworkers.

Final thoughts: Managing up

To summarize, managing up is not about working double duty and taking on your manager’s responsibilities. It’s also not about trying to go over their head, judging their behavior, or complaining about their tendencies.

Rather, managing up is about intentionally forging a healthy working relationship with your boss — which means getting to know them, accepting their faults, and working with their management style as best you can.

When done right, managing up benefits everyone in your organization, which is why it’s worth it.