How to Succeed at Managing Up: 10 Essential Tips

Managing up is one of the most important skills you can learn for your career growth. Here's how to master it.

May 9, 2022
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Managing up is one of the most important skills you can learn for your career growth.

But it’s very rarely talked about – and when it is, it’s often misunderstood. 

Read on to find out exactly what managing up is, why it’s so important, and ten simple ways to start doing it better.

What is managing up?

Managing up is when you manage your manager

This means figuring out the best times to pitch them an idea – and the times when you're least likely to get the green light from them on a suggestion. It means making their life as easy as possible and adapting to their particular way of working. And it means turning them into your biggest advocate with the higher-ups. 

Why is managing up important?

Learn how to successfully manage up and you’ll become invaluable to your boss. That will put them firmly in your corner when it comes time to talk pay rises and promotions with the people holding the purse strings. And if worst ever comes to worst, you’ll be the last on the list of people being laid off in your department. 

What’s more, if you can figure out how to reliably get your manager to come round to your way of thinking, you’re going to have a much bigger say in the strategy your team follows – and far fewer frustrating conversations where it feels like you can’t get through to your boss about a misstep they’re making.

What’s the difference between managing up and managing down?

Managing down is how you handle the people who report to you. That means your direct reports if you’re a line manager, but also any peers or contractors you outsource work to.

Even if you’re not a manager now, cracking the managing up code will do wonders for your ability to manage down once you’ve climbed the corporate ladder. Plus, no matter how far up the totem pole you climb, you’re always going to be managing up to someone – even if that ends up being shareholders. 

Simply put: the sooner you learn this skill, the more of an impact it’s going to have on your career trajectory.

How to manage upwards 

Now you know what managing up is and why it’s important, let’s dive into exactly how to do it successfully:

  1. Learn how your boss likes to work

Everyone has their own ways of doing things and their own idea of what a job well done looks like. Adapting to your boss’s way of working isn’t just one of the smartest things you can do for your career prospects – it’s also going to make work a lot less frustrating for both you and your manager.    

For example, if you prefer to communicate through detailed emails but your boss likes status updates to be short, snappy, and over the phone, be sure to pick up the phone when you need your boss's ear. Fail to do so and you’re setting yourself up to be constantly frustrated by how little of their attention you can get.

The most effective managers understand how they like to work and lay it out plain and simple for all of their direct reports. But with most managers, you’ll have to figure out how they like to work and adapt if you want to successfully manage up.

  1. Communicate proactively

Not going to hit a deadline? Spotted a snag in your team’s strategy? Don’t have everything you need to get a task over the line? Put yourself in your boss’s shoes: do you think they’d want to know sooner, or later?

No one likes being the bearer of bad news. But you’ll win your manager’s favor by giving them the heads up on any issues early so they can plan around it. And you’ll quickly end up in their bad books if you wait until the ninth hour to reveal that you’re going to fall short of a deadline.

  1. Let them in on your career aspirations

Your manager is your ticket to getting to where you want to go in your career. And opening up and letting them in on your aspirations can transform them into your advocate within the organization.

If you were a manager, who would you give more responsibility: the person you know is going to put their all into a task because it’s going to help them get to where you know they want to go in their career, or the person who hasn’t shown any signs of being ready to take on more responsibility.

So, be sure to be open and honest about your career aspirations in your next Career Development Survey to show your manager exactly what you’re looking to learn and how you’d like to grow.

  1. Be a problem-solver

Want to master managing up? Then never draw attention to a problem without also suggesting a solution.

Everyone loves a problem-solver. And the more of your boss’s headaches you take care of for them, the more responsibilities will be thrown your way – and the faster you’ll climb the corporate ladder.

  1. Learn how to disagree constructively 

You're not always going to agree with your boss’s decisions. But kicking up a big fuss about the things you think they’re getting wrong in front of the rest of the team isn’t going to get you very far.

For the best chances of actually having a say in your team’s strategy, you need to learn to disagree effectively. First, pull your boss to the side for a private conversation. Then begin by trying to understand their point of view. After all, your boss might be privy to knowledge you don’t have.

If you still disagree once you’ve got the bigger picture, it all goes back to offering solutions rather than problems. No one wants to hear “I think you’re doing that wrong”. But who doesn’t want to hear “I’ve been thinking about that, and here’s a way we could approach it that avoids the downsides”?

And bear in mind: even if you do everything right, you might not be able to change your manager’s mind. That’s fine – at the end of the day, they call the shots. If you see your long-term future at this organization, you’re better off dusting yourself off and moving forward than trying to undermine your manager, who is ultimately going to have a huge say in where you go in the company.

  1. Ask “how can I make their life easier?”

Want to quickly become your boss’s favorite employee? Always ask “how can I make their life easier?”.

Your manager has targets to hit, a team to look after, and their own manager to keep happy. That’s a lot for them to shoulder. The more ways you can find to ease their burden, the better your career prospects are going to be.

Don’t feel like you need to read their mind here, by the way. Ask your boss if there’s anything you can take off their plate and you’ll quickly become indispensable to them and your organization. 

  1. Err on the side of over-communicating

You’ll make your manager’s life a lot easier if you err on the side of over-communicating with them.

For example, follow up with your manager with the action points you’ve taken away from a meeting and they’ll be able to flag straight away if you’ve got the wrong end of the stick on something or made the wrong task your priority. 

A simple thing you can do is to share your list of priorities for the week ahead on a Monday morning. Then your manager can course correct if needed and won’t need to worry about chasing up on what’s on your agenda for the week.

This can nip so many problems in the bud before they have a chance to blossom into real headaches for your manager, which will do wonders for your working relationship. 

One caveat to this is that you should dial things back if your manager explicitly tells you they’d rather you keep them out of the loop and just deliver results. But in most cases, you’ll have better luck managing up if you err on the side of over-communicating.

  1. Tell them how you like to be managed

Your relationship with your manager cuts both ways. While the onus is on you to adapt to their way of working – they are your boss, after all – you should also let them know how they can get the best out of you.

For example, if you know from experience that you get more done if you spend your mornings with your head down, your emails closed, and your phone in another room, let them know you’ll be slow to respond in the mornings. Any manager worth their salt will be fine with you working whichever way helps you get as much done as possible (as long as it doesn’t mean you’re letting other responsibilities slip).

If you don’t vibe with your manager’s style, be sure to let them know by giving them meaningful feedback

  1. Take the lead in your 1:1s

Your 1:1s with your manager are your chance to take the lead on the tasks on your plate and the trajectory of your progression within the company.

An easy way to take control of your meetings with your manager and your career growth is to populate your 1:1 with Manager flow with everything that’s on your mind and the topics you want to discuss ahead of time. This will set the scene for a productive and effective 1:1 that’s being conducted on your terms – which your manager is sure to be happy with, since it makes their life a lot easier.

  1. Be open to feedback

Seeing your manager as someone you can learn a lot from – and their feedback as an opportunity to improve – is a surefire way to form a great working relationship with them.In contrast, nothing undoes all the hard work you’ve put in managing up to your boss than reacting badly to a bit of advice from them. 

So, don’t take it personally when your boss flags an area you can improve in. Reflect on it, respond to it, and watch your relationship with your boss go from strength to strength.

Summing up

Follow the advice we’ve laid out here and you’ll be a pro at managing up in no time – and quickly start reaping the rewards that come with mastering this often-overlooked soft skill.

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