The phrase ‘managing up’ can send shivers down spines, as some minds wander to office politics and all the negative connotations that brings. But, according to Dana Rousmaniere, Managing Editor of HBR’s Insight Centers, managing up doesn’t mean sucking up.
So, what if you were to reframe ‘Managing Up’ as a positive? I’ve seen it provide opportunities to improve your performance, enhance your career prospects, and also contribute to the success of your team and your organisation. This often lease to increased job satisfaction, so a win-win all round. What’s not to like?
What is (positive) ‘Managing Up’?
At its core, effective ‘Managing Up’ encourages you to build a positive and productive relationship with your leader, manager or supervisor. It involves understanding their needs and goals, then aligning your goals with those. In short, if you make it your mission to make your manager look like a rockstar, you will nail ‘managing up’.
Managing up is essentially the process of effectively communicating with your manager, so you can get the best out of each other. For anyone looking to improve their ‘influencing without authority’ skills, many aspects of ‘managing up’ can also be applied to strengthen peer and cross functional relationships too.
In contrast, the pessimistic view of ‘blowing smoke up your superior’s behind’ will likely lead to neither of you achieving your goals, and a resulting loss of trust and transparency between you.
12 tips to effectively 'manage up'
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I have a new manager, how do I start managing up?
In any workplace, it’s important to establish a good relationship with your manager. One way to do this is to have a productive first one-on-one meeting. During this meeting, it’s a good idea to discuss your manager’s preferred communication frequency and medium, so that you can meet their expectations.
Managers have different preferences when it comes to communication, so it’s important to let them explain what works for them. Some may prefer to meet infrequently, while others may want to talk every couple of days. Some may prefer email updates, while others may prefer instant messaging apps or voice notes.
In addition to discussing communication preferences, it’s also important to understand your manager’s goals and key performance indicators. By asking them directly what their goals are, you can demonstrate your commitment to helping them succeed. This can also help you align your goals and work with their objectives, which can improve your performance, as you focus only on what’s most important, and their perception of your work.
Having this type of conversation at the start of your relationship can lead to increased trust, alignment, and visibility, which will be beneficial in the long run. It can make it easier for your manager to support you in achieving those goals and can help you respectfully decline work that doesn’t bring you closer to those shared objectives.
I've been with my manager for a while...
Honestly? It’s never too late to start and I find a little humble pie goes a long way. Let your manager know you read an article about managing up and you realise you’ve not aligned with them as well as you could have in the past. Then ask how they prefer to engage and what their goals/KPIs are, and take it from there – you’ve got this…
Plan for effective 1:1's.
Whatever cadence you determine with your manager, be prepared for your 1:1’s. Use this time, not only to give project updates, but also to share your ideas and successes (so your manager has something to brag about when highlighting the work the team is doing).
To build trust, you also need to be honest about any challenges or obstacles you are facing. By keeping your manager in the loop, you are making it easier for them to support and advocate for you. Crucially – no matter how difficult the conversation – if something hasn’t gone according to plan, own up!. If you put your manager in a position to be blindsided, you are not effectively managing up and it will take time to regain your manager’s trust. Honesty is always the best policy.
The role of feedback.
Managing up also involves proactively providing feedback to your manager. This feedback should be both positive and constructive, highlighting the areas in which they are excelling, as well as surfacing areas for improvement – which could be as simple as letting your manager know how to get the best out of you. This will help your manager to be more aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, and can lead to improvements in the way they manage and lead their team. Naturally, you’ll want to find the right time to position any constructive feedback, but as close to the observation of the event as possible is recommended. For constructive feedback, I’ve always found this framework has served me well:
- Seek permission – ‘may I give you some feedback?’
- What happened was (explain the event/situation you observed)
- How it made me feel (explain – since your manager is likely unaware)
- How I’d prefer it to be in future (describe your ideal…)
Take the (proactive) initiative.
Another important aspect of managing up is taking initiative. Show your manager that you are proactive and that you are willing to take on additional responsibilities, in the pursuit of reaching your common goals. And not to forget, when you take a challenge to your manager, to be proactive and take along some potential solutions too. This will demonstrate your value to your manager and the organisation and can increase your visibility within the company.
That all sounds like a lot of effort – what’s in it for me?
A key benefit of managing up is that it helps you understand, and therefore better align, with your manager’s priorities. This will absolutely lead to building a stronger relationship with your manager. By communicating openly and effectively, and by taking the initiative to support their goals and objectives, you can quickly establish deep respect and trust with your manager.
Furthermore, according to Patrick Lencioni and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, ‘trust’ is the basis of any effective team. In time, this can lead to more opportunities for growth and development for yourself, as well as greater job satisfaction, as you are working in a trusting environment, where everyone is aiming towards the same goal.
Surely, this doesn’t apply to the most senior executives?
Some managers and leaders get so wrapped up in managing their subordinates, they can forget the importance of managing their relationship with their own manager, even if that manager happens to be the CEO. By not effectively managing up, they are missing an opportunity to build a strong relationship with their manager and gain their support and/or exposure to the C-Suite or Board.
I’m mindful of a CEO I worked with in the past, who when questioned about the most challenging aspect of becoming a CEO, quite quickly surmised that ‘people stop telling you what’s really happening and start telling you what they think you should know’. Nobody wants a ‘smoke blower’ – positive, rather than negative managing up, leading to greater trust and transparency – is just as important at the very top of a company as it is at the bottom.
Indeed, Thomas Barta and Patrick Barwise in their McKinsey Quarterly article ‘Why effective leaders must manage up, down, and sideways‘ make a compelling case as to why “Leaders, even those in the C-suite, must also extend their influence upward and horizontally.”
All things considered, managing up is the process of building a positive and productive relationship with your leader, manager or supervisor – and definitely NOT the more political activity of ’sucking up to your superior’.
At its core, managing up involves understanding your manager’s preferred working style, their needs and their goals, and proactively working to support them in achieving them.
If you are not effectively managing up, you are potentially missing an opportunity to not only improve your own performance that comes from having clarity and focus on your goal/s, but also to contribute to the success of your team and organisation.
Managing up is also about taking initiative. By doing so, you will increase your job satisfaction and have more opportunities for growth and advancement in your career, as you make it easy for your manager to positively advocate for you.
So ask yourself: given the obvious benefits, if you are not already managing up, what’s stopping you?
If you’d like help to plan your own ‘managing up’ strategy, I’d love to hear from you.