When I used to hear the term “managing up,” I always thought of a Ferris Bueller-type of character, someone on the phone with their manager, saying the words they know their boss will eat up, while not really believing in what they are saying — or making plans to do something completely different once they hung up. I thought it was another term for manipulation, a way to outsmart a boss in order to make work-life easier.
But I’ve changed my tune. Through the perspective of time (and a few phone calls with management experts) I now know that managing up is a powerful skill — and simply amounts to being clearer-eyed about the two-way street that is a manager-employee relationship. To manage up correctly, you must change from seeing yourself as a passive character waiting for assignments to someone who can empathize with their manager’s position and come to a meeting armed with solutions.
As a parent, this is a vital thing to understand, because you have less time for bullshit. By necessity, you’re looking to find ways to get to the best solution quicker with your team, so that you have the maximum capacity possible to handle your duties and decisions at home.
Learning how to manage up successfully helps with all of this and more. To do so might require a mental shift at work, says Scott Mautz, leadership trainer and author of Leading From the Middle. "To get to a proactive place where you’re accomplishing more, faster, you have to dare to be bold enough to lead your boss's thinking,” he says. “You need to change from a ‘minding the shop’ approach to a leadership approach.”
Here’s how to do just that.
1. Learn To Read Your Supervisor
In order to manage up successfully, you must figure out the information your boss needs and isn’t getting. “Oftentimes, a boss or a supervisor will think they know what needs to be done for the overarching vision. But the reality is that they just don't have all the context,” says Dan Owolabi, executive coach and author of Authentic Leadership. “Managing up is for people who legitimately have perspective but don't have authority.”
2. Have Some Empathy
You might become frustrated that your boss can’t seem to see the full picture, or doesn’t understand a problem from your perspective. That’s likely not just because they are inured to your concerns. They have a lot going on that you aren’t seeing. “It's a fallacy to think that higher up you go in leadership, the easier it gets,“ says Owolabi. “The higher up you get, the more ambiguous the problems get, and you have to deal with bigger, more difficult people.” As with any scenario, it helps to understand that you’re only seeing part of the picture.
3. Encourage Them To Delegate
You likely have had an experience with a boss who needs to touch every project. They can’t let go, so they become a bottleneck. Your team sits in a state of partial paralysis until your manager can wrap their head around a project and dictate next steps. And when the ‘next steps ‘ are handed down on Friday, they’re not much more evolved than the plans proposed in the meeting on Tuesday. So what do you do to fix a bottleneck boss? Owolabi argues that you should make a proposal. “Say, 'Hey, have you thought about delegating this task to these people, so you can tackle bigger things?' or you can say 'Hey, does Sally need more training so she can handle these decisions?'”
4. Have An Agenda (Literally.)
One of the best things you can do to manage up is to show your boss that you value their time — and your team’s. So when you’re holding a meeting with your boss alone, or with multiple colleagues, start by declaring exactly what you’d like to cover. It’s as simple as saying “Today, I’d like to talk to you about these three things.” You know this is management 101 stuff. But you also know how frequently it doesn’t happen, and meetings go off course. “If you state your agenda up top, you can literally watch people’s faces become relieved like you understand the secret,” says Owolabi.
5. Don’t Just Complain About Problems. Provide Solutions.
When you moan to your boss about hangups you’re running into — with another department, with corporate bureaucracy, with some piece of frustrating software — your boss may think that you’re fishing for a solution that they need to come up with. Instead of using a session with your boss to blow off steam, spend some time defining what the problems are, and figure out a handful of possible solutions to present them. “A lot of the time, employees don't do a good job of presenting information to help the boss make a decision, they just burst into the office with a list of problems and crises,” says Mautz. “Instead, bring me enough information so that as a team, we can decide what to do about the problem.”
6. And Don’t Bring Up Every Little Problem
Understanding which problems to bring up with your boss and which to figure out yourself is a skill that comes through experience. But there’s also a good rule of thumb, says Mautz. “If the problem will have a material impact on a strategy, major goal, or objective, it's worth bringing up to the boss with context and potential solutions,” he says. “If it’s just an executional, day-to-day problem, the more of those you can solve on your own, the further you’ll get.”
7. Force Them to Share Your Perspective
If you feel like your boss isn’t locking in on a particular challenge you’re describing, present them a series of ideas or solutions, along with “If you were me, what would you do?” It’s an age-old trick that will back them into decision-making mode.
8. See Yourself As A Capacity-Expander
“If you're really good at what you're doing, you're expanding your boss's capacity,” says Mautz. “Your boss will start to understand that they can delegate not just executional work, but projects that you can think through strategically and with vision — expanding their capacity rather than be a drain on them.”
9. Be Honest About Your Abilities — But Just To A Degree
As you progress in your career, you’ll likely encounter projects that you don’t quite know how to pull off. Instead of joking to your boss and your team that you’re terrified of a particular project, or that you’ve never done it before, be honest about your skill set and frame it in a way that says you’ll try it, and get better at it. “You want to be honest to your boss. But you don’t want to be so honest that people lose trust in your abilities,” says Owolabi.
10. Get Something Out Of A Bad Boss
Sometimes you’ll catch a dud. Instead of continuously seething, take the long view and look at working with a bad boss as a learning opportunity. It will not last forever. You’ll learn what not to do, and how not to act. Turn their weaknesses into opportunities. “You can become a bellweather and a lighthouse of empathy in your organization if you fill in the weak spots for your boss, and you learn to strengthen the culture on your own,” says Mautz. “Just remember that ‘this too shall pass.’”