No matter what your job is, the odds are pretty good you work for somebody. Whether you call them your manager, boss, or supervisor there are actions you can take to maximize your working relationship, or manage up. While some people think managing up is another term for manipulating a boss, it can more constructively be viewed as a set of tools for improving your value within your organization. For the purpose of this article, we’ll call the person you work for your manager. Here are five actions you can take to manage up.
1. Understand and support your manager’s priorities
While it may seem elementary, how many of us can name our manager’s top 3-5 priorities? Most people would be forced to admit their manager must have priorities but they would not be able to list them. Like it or not, managers often don’t communicate their priorities as clearly as we might expect. As an employee, advisor, consultant or team member, consider it one of your implied job duties to understand and support your manager’s top priorities. To do this, you may actually have to ask what they are. Once you gain an understanding of your manager’s goals, you can align your work effort toward those goals. By aligning your activities to achievement of your manager’s priorities, you will not only help them succeed, you’ll set yourself up to be seen as an invaluable part of your manager’s team.
2. Communicate frequently and effectively
Understanding your manager’s communication style and preferences is key to effectively communicating with them. Does your manager prefer you to drop in for a quick conversion or do they want you to schedule time with them for a structured meeting? Do they like to see facts and figures or do they make decisions based on gut feel? Once you begin to realize how to effectively communicate with your manager, find ways to do it frequently enough to keep them informed and to get their input when you need it. Remember your manager is busier than you think so there’s a fine balancing act between keeping them informed and becoming a nuisance.
Make sure you’re providing your manager with information and not just data. Nothing is more annoying to a busy manager than receiving an e-mail saying “The attached spreadsheet shows the results of our analysis” when the attached spreadsheet is actually 6 pages of raw data with no overview or summary information. The manager who receives such a message is either going to ask you for a summary, ignore the data altogether or spend hours of their time pouring over it to arrive at the same conclusion you already reached. None of those scenarios are what you or your manager wants. Another example of poor communication is sending e-mail to your manager without clearly explaining what you need them to do with the information. If you need them to contact somebody in another department, ask them to do so in the message. Don’t just send an e-mail showing that you and your peer disagree.
3. Help your manager avoid surprises
Unless it involves ice cream or cake, nobody likes surprises in the workplace and your manager doesn’t either. Often times you will receive the pending bad news before your manager does. When that happens, ask yourself this simple question “Would I rather give them the bad news myself or let them find out in a meeting with their boss/customer/peers?” Doing so makes it pretty clear that talking with your manager is almost always the best approach. As a client once told me, project managers don’t usually get in trouble because of bad news. They usually get in trouble because they waited too long to tell anybody. Your manager knows not everything works as planned. In fact, they expect you will make some mistakes. It is the way you handle the problems you encounter that colors your manager’s view of you. We’ve all worked with that guy who says everything is going well until the day before his deadline. That’s when he drops the bomb that he’s suddenly a month behind schedule. Don’t be that guy.
4. Marginalize your manager’s weaknesses
A great technique for managing up is understanding your manager’s weaknesses and finding ways to marginalize them. Often you will find one of your manager’s weaknesses is a strength of yours or your manager dislikes something you enjoy. Either way, you’ve found a win-win opportunity. I once worked for a client who didn’t get along very well with one of her peers. I happened to have a pretty good relationship with the other manager and began interfacing with them on my client’s behalf. I quickly realized I could help my client avoid something she didn’t enjoy, negotiating details with her peer, by doing it for her. Without saying a word, I stepped in and became the unofficial ambassador to the other department. Similarly, with another client, I was able to pull together executive presentations on high visibility projects. This allowed the client to focus on other things while I took the time to develop their presentations. What is it your manager isn’t terribly good at or doesn’t seem to enjoy? If you can pick up a responsibility doing something you enjoy and do well, your manager will always appreciate it.
5. Respect your manager’s time
Finally, remember your manager is a busy person. As hard as you may be working to make their job easier, not all of your peers are doing the same. Managers often find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of having to make decisions without all of the information they would like to have. They have to deal with personnel issues, personality conflicts, unhappy employees, deadlines dictated by outside forces, budget pressures, and more. There will be times when you truly need their help and they know that. However, try to keep your demands on them as low as you reasonably can. By simply doing your job well you will already be making your manager’s job easier. If you can also think through issues and brainstorm solutions before you bring problems to them, they will appreciate it. Try not to ask them for the same help twice. If they are willing to show you how to do something yourself, take notes and don’t be afraid to slow them down so you can be sure you understand and don’t have to ask them again next week.
By managing up you are proactively assuming responsibility for your relationship with your manager. There are many ways to effectively manage up and the five steps here should provide you with a great start. Support your manager’s priorities, communicate effectively, help your manager avoid surprises, marginalize their weaknesses, and respect their time. Doing so will set you apart from your peers and make you a more valuable and respected member of your team.