The term managing up (also known as managing your boss) is an explosive term. In fact, it’s not something that I would encourage you to start saying in the workplace. I don’t think your boss would receive you too well if you told her or him that your development goal over the next year is to learn how to get better at managing up.
So, let’s accept that while I am going to talk about how to manage up at work, it is not something that you want to discuss casually. This is information that you want to understand and use appropriately (because misusing it can bring you grief with your boss).
Middle managers need to know how to manage up. It's best that they not go around saying that this is what they are doing, however. (Hint: Their bosses probably won't like it — even when they know it's happening!) Click To Tweet
What is Managing Up?
The truth is that if you are not your organization’s most senior leader, then you do need to know something about managing up.
Sometime in your relationship with your boss, you are going to reach a crossroad where the two of you have different views on something that is critically important. In those instances, you’ll need to manage up.
In truth, you don’t manage your boss in the traditional sense, as you do not have direct power over your boss. Managing up is influencing your boss to take a certain action that is good for the organization and good for your boss as well. In practice, you are persuading your boss. You are using the art of influence to gain her or his cooperation. When you start down the road of “managing up,” it’s important to approach this area carefully so you do not damage your working relationship with your boss.
Managing up is not playing manipulative games to outsmart your boss, however. It’s also not about getting what you want for your own personal reasons. Your goal in managing up has to be about doing what is best for the organization. If it is anything else, you will harm your credibility in your organization and this might not be just with your boss. You can also damage your relationships with your peers. So, resist this urge, because once you lose too much goodwill in your organization it will be hard for you to maintain your organizational standing.
Managing up means knowing how and when to communicate information, understanding your boss’s leadership style and needs, and knowing how to adapt your interaction style to communicate and work effectively with him or her.Your goal in managing up should always be to do what is best for the organization. If it's for any other reason, you will harm your credibility. Click To Tweet
How to Manage Up
To be effective at managing up, you will need self-awareness.
You’ll also want to gain an understanding of the following:
- How does your interaction style impact your boss?
- How do you come across to him or her?
- What does your boss value about you as their employee?
- What does your boss find challenging about working with you?
- What do you need to do more of when you need to influence your boss?
- What do you need to do less of when you need to influence your boss?
Your understanding of these questions will help you to adapt your style so you can interact effectively with your boss when you communicate your position. If you cannot answers the questions that I raised, then you are not ready to manage up. To gain this information about yourself and your boss, I recommend that you take a personality styles assessment (like the MBTI or DISC).Managing up is really more about influencing those with power above you to make the best decisions possible for the organization — not for you. Click To Tweet
An Example of Managing Up
Once you know what is important to your boss (not what is important to you), you can use that information to create win/win solutions to the problems you face.
This technique is based on the understanding that the best way to gain someone’s cooperation is to appeal to something that is important to her or him. This is why salespeople ask you questions when they first meet you. They are trying to find out what is important to you so they can align their sales goal with your needs.
For example, I once worked with a Vice President of an organization who sometimes made decisions too quickly. He generally made these quick decisions when he was concerned that his peers or the CEO might perceive him negatively because of some aspect of his operations.
The problem was that once this VP made a decision, he rarely changed course. Instead, he just committed everyone in his area to working harder to make his decision work. He did not care much about the process for getting things done as long as his peers and the CEO were happy.
The problem was that while his peers and the CEO were generally happy, the VP’s managers were becoming unhappy. The VP’s quick and generally permanent decision-making style was creating morale and turnover issues. His managers were frustrated that they could not get through to him about slowing things down and not changing course so frequently.
As often happens in situations like that, the continuing tension and declining morale started this management team down the wrong path to questioning each other’s motives. His managers began to view him as a schemer who would do anything to look good to his boss and peers. He began to view his managers as being resistant to change and willing to do anything to maintain the status quo.
The real problem with this group was that they did not understand each other’s personality styles. They did not know how to adapt their communication and interaction styles to get a better result.
In the case of the VP’s managers, this meant they did not know how to communicate their concerns appropriately to get the VP to see the results of some of his decisions. The managers kept trying to get the VP to see things their way by speaking in terms that were important to them: process, efficiencies, and resource allocation.
The problem was that the VP cared more about relationships than process. In working with them, I helped them to understand that what they needed to do was speak in the terms that were important to the VP: organizational reputation, internal relations, and customer service. I helped them to see that they needed to bring real organizational data that showed the VP how his decisions were damaging relationships.
This was not hard for them to do once they understood how to tweak their message. For example, they already had data on staff turnover in their units. It’s just that they saw turnover as a bad outcome (the loss of good staff members) while the VP saw it as a desirable outcome (the loss of resistant workers). The managers needed to determine the impact of the turnover on relationships. They needed to dig further.
Once they analyzed the data looking through a different lens, they were able to show the VP that turnover was affecting the managers’ ability to sustain his commitments that he made to his peers and CEO. This was actually hurting internal relations for the VP and his organization over the long term.
Managing up worked in this instance because these middle managers focused on a win/win solution that was better for everyone concerned including the VP who was unknowingly hurting his organizational effectiveness with hasty decision-making. These managers learned how to communicate their position and support it with actual data from the organization in terms that were important to their boss — not to them.
Managing up is possible, but it is not easy. It requires self-awareness of your social impact, an understanding of your boss, and the ability to adapt your interaction and communication styles as necessary.To be an effective advocate for your employees, you'll need the skill of managing up (influencing your boss). You'll also need to manage up by using an approach that does not harm your existing relationship with your boss. Click To Tweet