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Managing up: What it means and why it’s important
Lexi Croswell, author

Lexi Croswell

Writer, Culture Amp

The idea of managing up might suggest notions of an incompetent manager with whom you can’t stand to work with. This manager is constantly micromanaging, giving vague feedback, and forcing you to work overtime. However, at its core, managing up isn’t about trying to “fix” a bad manager or manipulating a manager into doing what you want.

Rather, managing up a soft skill centered around using the traits of a good manager to help you bring out the best in yourself as an employee. When done effectively, managing up makes your and your manager’s day-to-day job easier.

In this article, we explore how you can manage up effectively and why managing up is important.

What is managing up?

The Harvard Business Review defines managing up as “being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.”

Despite what you may imagine, managing up is not:

  • Going above your manager's head to have your ideas heard
  • Flipping the script and trying to manage your manager instead
  • Trying to mold your manager into someone different
  • Judging or evaluating your manager’s behaviors or abilities

Instead, managing up is:

  • Understanding what your manager wants to achieve
  • Developing a positive and productive relationship with your manager
  • Learning and adapting to your manager's communication style and way of working
  • Communicating your own preferred work and communication style
  • Anticipating your manager's needs

The principle of managing up is understanding. By gaining an awareness of what their goals are and how your manager operates, you can nurture a healthy relationship that is beneficial to not only both of you but also the larger organization.

Examples of managing up

Here are some concrete examples of what managing up can look like in practice:

  • Proactively reaching out to your manager when you need help
  • Keeping your manager up-to-date on the status of your projects, particularly when there are delays
  • Scheduling 1-on-1 meetings at a time that works well for both you and your manager
  • Stepping up to support your manager with priorities when you have the time

How do you manage up?

Part of managing up is using the traits of a great manager to support your own manager. In previous research, we identified the 11 essential traits of great managers. Here, we share how you can apply those traits in managing up with your boss.

1. Be caring

Managers who are caring take time to get to know the individuals in their team. Employees who manage up take time to get to know their boss. Show genuine interest in your manager’s wellbeing, be empathetic to their experiences, and celebrate their successes.

2. Coaching

While you don’t need to be a coach in the traditional sense for your manager, providing useful feedback is a component of successful coaching you can use. When your boss asks if there are things they can do to help you develop, give them an honest answer.

3. Communicating

A great way to manage up when it comes to communication is to understand your manager’s preferred communication channels. In addition to your regular 1-on-1, how should you reach out if you have questions? You can efficiently communicate with your manager’s needs by actively listening to them.

4. Development

Understanding your manager’s plans for their career development can help you manage up. For example, if your manager has a goal to become the next VP in your department, how can you support them in that goal? While your manager looks out for your career development, find ways to support and acknowledge theirs as well.

5. Emotionally resilient

Can you remain calm and productive under pressure and cope well with change? Can you help your manager when they’re under pressure and experiencing change? This is a great way to manage up. If you notice your manager dealing with extra stress and pressure, offer to help them run a team meeting or take on an additional task to reduce their workload.

6. Fair treatment

Managers engage in fair treatment when they assign tasks and work with people’s capacity and developmental goals in mind. As a direct report, you can engage in fair treatment with your manager by giving them positive feedback when they engage in fair treatment as a way to reinforce this behavior.

7. Fostering innovation

An important component of fostering innovation is avoiding micromanagement. This is important in managing up as well, you don’t want to seem overbearing or controlling of your manager’s behaviors. Help to foster innovation by learning from failures and achievements and letting your boss know that you value autonomy.

8. Overall manager effectiveness

People willingly recommend effective managers to others, and the people they manage feel valued. Your effectiveness when managing up is tied to how you make your manager feel valued and share in mutual success.

9. Results-oriented

With a results-oriented manager, a way to manage up is to acknowledge the importance of performance standards – and meet them. Supporting your teammates in maintaining performance standards helps your manager (and your team) succeed.

10. Technical capability

If you have greater technical capability than your manager, help them learn the needed skills. Managers are not always well-versed in every new tool, but perhaps you’ve had experience with one in your role. Take the time to give them support with new technologies.

11. Vision and goal setting

Does your manager help you see the vision and strategy of your company in actionable components? Let them know it makes a difference to you. When your manager knows you understand how your role contributes to the company's success, they can focus on results.

Questions to ask yourself before moving forward

Developing any soft skill takes time and intention, and managing up is no different. To help you get started, reflect on how you and your manager work together and what similarities and differences exist between your:

  1. Communication styles
  2. Work style
  3. Priorities
  4. Most productive times of the day
  5. Preferences for giving and receiving feedback

Ask yourself how these similarities and differences in “ways of working” shape your working relationship with your manager. Then, come up with strategies for creating more positive and mutually beneficial relationships.

For example, you may notice your manager is overloaded with meetings from Monday to Wednesday. However, your 1-on-1 was scheduled for Tuesday because that was your preference. Once you notice this, though, you can ask your manager if it they’d prefer to move your 1-on-1 to a different, less overwhelming day of the week.

Why is managing up important?

When done well, managing up makes your manager’s (and your) job easier. Understanding the best way to communicate with your boss, demonstrating that you care, meeting performance goals, and more won’t go unnoticed. Managing up can be especially important with a newly hired manager or when you change teams. Demonstrating these behaviors from the get-go will start your relationship off on the right foot.

Managing up with a longtime boss can also help you renew your relationship. Make a few goals related to managing up to prioritize in your next 1-on-1, like talking through communication, getting to know something personal, or understanding your manager’s development goals. With these tools in hand, you’re on your way to a better managerial relationship at work.

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