April 10, 2019

Managing up: The most important skill no one ever taught you

Imagine that a friend texted you to vent about their situation at work.

“My manager just doesn’t get me, and it’s starting to get really frustrating. I need clearly-defined goals I can measure my work against, but I guess that’s just not how she does things.”

What’s the first thing you’d want to say to this friend? You might reply with something like:

“Well, have you told your manager what you need?”

It can seem obvious, but most people don’t actually know how to manage up, or even that they should be doing it in the first place.

What managing up really means

Are you up on this crucial skill?

People often think of their relationships with their managers as one-way streets: the manager sets a vision and delegates tasks, and the direct report follows. The reality is different: a relationship with one’s manager should be mutually beneficial.

Managing up can be thought of as an intentional approach to working with your manager, toward goals you both care about. (Read that sentence again—that’s right, your and your manager want many of the same things.) You both want a fulfilling life at work. You both want a positive working relationship. And you both want you to succeed!

Managing up is about making your boss’s job easier so that yours will be better. It’s clearly a win-win, but some myths still exist. The three biggest are:

  1. “Managing up is manipulating your boss.” False. To manage up effectively, you have to be transparent about your intentions of building a better working relationship.
  2. “Managing up is just complaining.” False. You need to have your needs met. That’s why they’re called “needs!” Asking for what you need at work isn’t entitled—it’s necessary.
  3. “Managing up is sucking up.” False. When you manage up, you’re giving both positive and constructive feedback.

Why managing up matters

Straight up: You need to get comfortable giving feedback to your manager.

Think back to your fictional friend from the beginning of this post. What could happen if they go on without communicating with their boss?

Well, managing up can be the difference between a harmonious relationship with your manager and a combative one. Between a job you love and a job you want to leave.

Benefits of managing up include:

  • It can lead you to find common ground with a manager who doesn’t work or think the way you do.
  • It can help you gain control over your workload.
  • It can result in a manager who’s willing to advocate for you when there’s something you want.
  • It can make your value to your organization clear to your manager and the team as a whole.

The managing up playbook

What goes up comes back down.

There are four simple things you can do to strengthen your partnership with your manager.

  1. Understand your manager and yourself. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. Label your working style. Know what motivates you. There are plenty of great tools for helping you build a vocabulary around these things—StrengthsFinders is an excellent one to start with.
  2. Set and manage expectations. Know what your manager expects from you, so you can be honest with them about what’s manageable. You also have to be honest with yourself about what you can handle. You may also have to manage expectations with yourself when it comes to managing up: recognize that while you can influence your manager, you can’t control them.
  3. Prioritize communication. Work to understand your manager’s style of communication. Identify the best ways to present them with challenges and opportunities. And when in doubt, over-communicate.
  4. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.Negotiate” is a scary word, but it doesn’t have to be. Once you’ve laid the groundwork for your relationship with your manager, telling them how you feel and what you need is much easier. Keep an open mind as you negotiate, and be willing to compromise.

How to maintain a managing up mindset

Keep it up by monitoring your skills.

Managing up is a muscle you have to develop over time, and you can always improve your skills. Need a gut check? Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Have I taken the primary responsibility for managing my relationship with my boss?
  2. Am I aware of my manager’s expectations for me in this moment, and are they realistic?
  3. Is my manager aware of what resources I need to meet those expectations?

For many people, their relationship with their boss is the number-one determining factor in their happiness at work. By learning to manage up and improve that relationship, you’re investing in your own happiness.

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