I know a few things about managing up.
I’ve had over 20 different managers during the course of my career.
Some of them I still consider friends and confidants.
Others I hope never to cross paths with again.
It didn’t take me long to learn this lesson: My relationship with my managers was the single most important factor when it came to my happiness at work.
It did, however, take me far too long to figure out an even more important lesson: I had a lot of control over my relationship with my supervisors. Way more than I thought I did when I was at my first few jobs.
There’s a phrase for the lesson I learned: Managing up. And once you learn how to do it, two things happen:
- Your working life gets a lot less stressful
- Your career starts moving at a faster pace
I’m going to walk you through the basics of managing up, including lots of examples of what it looks like on the job. By the time you finish reading this, you’ll be ready to start managing up with your own boss, and reaping the benefits of a happier working life.
What does managing up mean?
Managing up is the act of consciously changing your own behaviors at work to be a better employee and in turn foster a better relationship with your boss and your company.
Once you learn how to manage up, you become focused on being a productive and proactive worker, while also stepping back to understand your manager’s needs, goals, and working style.
As we start discussing different ways to manage up, you may realize that many of these tips could easily fit under an article titled: “How to be a good manager.” That’s because a big part of managing up is actually more like “managing in”—you are using positive management tactics on yourself, to make yourself a better, more amenable employee.
What managing up does NOT mean
Reading the above managing up definition, it may sound like this concept is about bending over backwards to please your boss and company. But that’s not the case. As you’ll see, managing up is a pretty healthy activity—it’s a method of self-improvement and career development that will serve you in the long run.
So as you’re reading these tips, remember that managing up does not mean:
Sucking up to your boss
Managing up is about seeing your boss as a person, and understanding what motivates them. I am not going to be telling you to mark your boss’s birthday on your calendar, or bring them their favorite coffee every morning. Sucking up is a good way to get your boss to walk all over you—it’s not a method of managing up.
Don’t look to the movie “The Devil Wears Prada” for an example of managing up. The primary character, Andrea, does not do a good job of managing up at any point in the movie, save for perhaps the very end. But with a boss like Miranda Priestly, managing upward was likely impossible from the beginning.
Covering up your boss’s mistakes
Some people think that being a good employee means showing undying loyalty to your boss—and being willing to “take one for the team” to cover up your boss’s errors or mismanagement. This is a bad strategy, and definitely not something I’ll be recommending in this article. I will, however, show you how to address your boss’s errors and shortcomings in a way that benefits both you and your supervisor.
Tolerating toxic management
I’ve come across my fair share of toxic bosses in my day. Managing up still works with them, but only to an extent. Some managers will never be able to appreciate the hard work you put into being a good employee. In these cases, managing up may be a futile exercise (see above regarding Miranda Priestly). What’s more important is finding a way to either address the boss’s poor behavior with HR or another supervisor, or removing yourself from the toxic workplace altogether.
Being inauthentic at work
Managing up may require you to change some of your behaviors, but it’s not about becoming someone you aren’t. I won’t be advising you to “grin and bear it” at work or do anything that goes against your nature. But I will ask you to be conscious of your behaviors, consider new ways of doing things, and think carefully about what you do and how it affects you and your manager.
Saying yes to everything
Repeat after me: “I have the right to set appropriate boundaries with my boss.” In fact, setting boundaries is a vital part of managing up. It can be tempting to say yes to every project your boss gives you, because you want to be seen as reliable. But failing to set boundaries and say no at the right times is a one-way ticket to burnout.
Being manipulative or playing into office politics
When you’re managing up, you are tapping into your empathy to better understand your boss and their needs. You are not trying to find sneaky ways to manipulate your boss into doing what you want, or playing the colleagues around you to get a leg up. That is not empathetic behavior—that is predatory behavior, and a great way to make enemies at the workplace. If you ever get the feeling that you’re doing something sneaky or cruel, it’s time to stop and rethink your strategy.
Pledging absolute loyalty to your manager or company
Though managing up will require you to be more engaged and thoughtful about your boss and company, it doesn’t mean you have to pledge your loyalty to them forever.
The idea of “company loyalty” is outdated and, frankly, BS. You and your company have entered a contract: You get money from them in exchange for your time. That’s it.
Your desire to manage upwards shouldn’t get in the way of you seeking new and better job opportunities when you feel it’s the right time.
What happens when you start managing up?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: Managing upwards is hard, and it takes a lot of patience and dedication. But trust me, the payoff is worth it.
Though managing up requires hard work, in the long-run it’s one of the best ways to reduce stress at work. So many of our work-related anxieties can be tied to poor relationships with our bosses and colleagues. Managing up is a way to reduce those issues and lower stress all around.
You’ll also find that managing up will give you deeper insight into not just your boss, but the entire organization you work for. You will learn more about how the business works and where you, your boss, and your colleagues fit into the big picture.
That, in turn, gives you a big advantage at work. You will be able to see where your opportunities for growth lie. On top of that, your manager (assuming they are competent) will begin to trust and understand you more. And that matters if you ever want them to recommend you for a promotion or write you a glowing letter of recommendation for your next job.
From the outside, managing up may seem like you’re doing a lot of work to serve your boss. But once you get into it, you’ll see it’s more about helping yourself maintain a healthy work life while also getting ahead.
How to manage up (with examples)
Below I’ve run through some of the most important behaviors to cultivate if you want to start managing up and improving your work life.
I’ve also added some examples (that may or may not be based on personal experiences) to show you what these behaviors look like in practice.
Let’s dig in.📚
Understanding that your boss is a human being
How well do you really know your boss? This is a vital part of managing up.
It can be hard to think of them this way, but your boss is a lot like you—they have tasks they need to do, goals they need to meet, people they need to report to, and a life outside of work to deal with. The more you understand about these things, the easier it will be to work well with your manager.
To get a better understanding of your boss, first start thinking about what you do know about them. Do you know who their manager is? Do you know what they do in a typical day? Do you know any important deadlines they have to meet? Do you know what their big obligations are outside of work?
As you ponder these questions, you may realize you just don’t have the answers to them. This means it’s time to get to know your boss better, so you can understand how to work with them in the best way possible.
Note, I am not saying that you need to start treating your boss like your friend, or ask them probing questions about their personal life. But it does help to have general insight into what’s going on in your boss’s world, so that you can plan your own work and behavior accordingly.
Managing Up Example
You and your boss have 1:1 meetings every week. In these meetings, your boss asks you lots of questions about your work, your goals, and what you plan on doing in the coming week.
But as you reflect on your relationship with your boss, you realize that the 1:1s are completely one-sided.
So toward the end of your next check-in with them, you say, “Before we wrap up, can I ask a few questions? I’m curious to know more about what your top priorities are this month. It will help me prioritize my work to support you.”
You have shown your boss that you are curious and eager to be helpful. You have also given them an invitation to open up more about their own work and priorities, paving the way for a deeper, happier working relationship.
Observing your boss’s behaviors and techniques
Learning about your boss’s goals and day-to-days is an important step, but there are also some subtle ways you can start managing up.
Whenever you are interacting with your boss, you have the opportunity to observe how they are communicating and behaving. If you’re paying attention, you’ll soon start to discover patterns that will help you anticipate what they expect or how they will react in a certain situation.
Once again, we are not talking about being manipulative here, or trying to anticipate your boss’s every move. Instead, it’s about taking the time to reflect on your boss’s behaviors and attitudes, and act accordingly.
Think of this as a sort of data-collection process. When something happens at the office—good or bad—pay attention to how your boss responds. Does she get quiet when she receives bad news? Does she become more relaxed or stressed on certain days of the week? When you start to notice patterns, take note, and soon you’ll have an easier time with your goal to manage upwards.
Managing Up Example
You’ve been at your job for a few months, and you start to notice a pattern.
When you give your boss an update before noon, they are attentive and give you deep feedback. But often, when you try to update them later in the day, they seem distracted at best and sometimes even irritable.
There could be many reasons for this—they’re a morning person, or their deadlines are more pressing in the afternoons. Maybe you know the answer, maybe you don’t—what matters is you’ve recognized the behavior pattern.
So without making a fuss, you ask your boss if you can move your update meetings to 10am.
Your boss will appreciate you anticipating their needs—even if they don’t realize what you’ve done on a conscious level. You’ve also found a way of working that gets you what you need, in this case an attentive boss, because you’ve been observant.
Being proactive and solution-oriented
If you’ve never been a manager yourself, let me tell you from personal experience—it’s not a walk in the park. The pressure from upper management can be intense, and trying to manage multiple workers effectively takes a lot of skill and practice.
I can also tell you that good managers appreciate employees who work hard to be proactive, predictive, and solution-oriented. Unless you’re dealing with a micromanager, your boss will be thrilled when you do something to make their job easier.
This does not mean volunteering for projects that are your boss’s responsibility. It does, however, mean that you should be fully dedicated to your own responsibilities.
One of my favorite bosses ever had a sign above her desk that read, “Bring solutions with your problems.” This was some of the best advice I’ve ever received about managing up.
When you encounter problems or roadblocks at work, you don’t want to run to your boss right away. Instead, try to find solutions yourself—even if you can’t execute those solutions without your boss’s help, they’ll be happy you at least brought a solution to the table along with your problem.
Managing Up Example
Your boss has told you they’d like you to start putting together an email newsletter once a week for your company. The only problem is, you have never made a newsletter before, and you don’t have any clue where to start!
Instead of plainly telling your boss, “I don’t know how to do that!” you instead take a little time out of your day to do some research. You find a few affordable courses you could take, and you also find out that one of your colleagues, Taylor, has experience creating email newsletters.
Now when you approach your boss to discuss the newsletter, you can say, “I haven’t made a newsletter before, but I found a few courses that could help me learn. Also I was wondering if I could team up with Taylor on this, since they have experience…”
Your boss is grateful they didn’t have to come up with a solution to a problem they didn’t know existed. They see you as someone who is a problem-solver, and clever enough to manage their own work. On top of that, you’ve negotiated an opportunity for yourself (in this case, a new skill) by defining your own solution.
Actively asking for feedback and guidance
Good managers will be skilled at giving praise where it’s due and constructive feedback where it’s needed. But even the best managers aren’t mind readers—they appreciate you letting them know when you need feedback and guidance.
There’s no doubt it can be very uncomfortable asking for feedback or admitting you need help. But it’s one of those things that certainly gets easier (and less necessary) with time. If your boss is intuitive, they will start to see when you need feedback and give it to you without you having to ask for it.
Managing Up Example
You’ve just given a presentation at a client meeting, and it went on for an hour longer than it was supposed to. You think you did pretty well, but you also know you stumbled on your words a few times.
Because the meeting ran over, your boss had to leave right away for another meeting across town. By the time they get back, they’re so focused on their latest meeting that they don’t get around to catching up with you about your presentation.
You know your boss has had a busy day, and you know they tend to be forgetful when there’s a lot going on. (You’ve picked up on these things since you’ve been more observant.)
The next day you ask them if you can schedule 30 minutes with them to discuss the presentation you gave the previous day. In the intervening time, you reflect more on the meeting, ask your other colleagues who were there how they felt, and prepare some questions for your boss for the upcoming feedback session.
You have once again been proactive enough to seek out the feedback and guidance you need to be the best employee you can be. You’ve also observed your boss’s schedule and behavior and decided on the best time to ask for the feedback. Once again, you get what you need while also making things easier for your supervisor.
Giving your boss constructive feedback
If you think asking for feedback when you need it is hard, then buckle up—because part of managing up also means giving your boss feedback when they need it.
The power structures at work often make it hard to give feedback to someone who is “above you” in terms of the workplace hierarchy. Even if your manager says they’re open to feedback, it’s intimidating to critique someone to whom you report.
The key to feedback is all about timing and delivery. You never want to give feedback when you’re feeling angry or frustrated—an outburst definitely won’t help you get ahead at work, and could even cost you your job. At the same time, you don’t want to sit too long on problems you have with your manager; this causes resentment and burnout.
When you have a chance to provide feedback to your boss, you want to focus once again on helping them solve the problem at hand. Take time to point out the things they are doing well in addition to the areas that aren’t working for you. Be prepared to explain why it’s not working and what you think could help in the future. And above all else, keep it kind and respectful.
Managing Up Example
You work remotely, and frequently need information from your boss to take care of your work. The problem is, your boss seems to disappear for hours at a time with no warning. They don’t respond to phone calls or emails or text messages.
When they do eventually get back to you, they always have a good explanation—they were in a meeting, or had already scheduled something else for that time. But the problem remains that you spent a lot of time trying to hunt them down instead of getting your work done, and that’s not good for anyone (or the business).
You take some time to think about how you can solve this problem, and schedule a meeting with your boss to talk about it. You explain to them that you are trying to improve your own productivity, and that sometimes you need information from them but can’t get it. You suggest creating a shared calendar with your boss, so you can see exactly when they will and won’t be available for your questions, so you can plan accordingly.
You recognized an issue that was causing you to fall behind on your work, and found a solution to the problem. You explained it to your boss in a calm way, and they listened to your feedback and grew from it. Now they are aware of the problem and working with you to fix it, saving you a lot of headaches.
Be transparent and accountable in all aspects of your career
Everyone makes mistakes at work. But not everyone knows how to gracefully own up to problems they’ve caused. Being transparent about your work, even if it feels uncomfortable, is a big part of managing up.
It can be tempting to try and hide your mistakes and hope they never come to light. But if they do, then your manager will no longer see you as someone they can trust and rely on. That’s going to be a major blow to your managing up efforts.
If, however, your boss knows you are the kind of person who will take responsibility for your actions, then they will see you as a valuable employee, the kind they want to keep around and help up the ladder.
Managing Up Example
You’re in the middle of your lunch break when you have a horrible realization—you completely forgot to tell your colleagues about the party of 15 coming into the restaurant where you work tonight.
For a moment, you’re tempted to just not mention it. You could pretend that the reservation never came through. But not only will this make the customers angry, it also will jeopardize your reputation with your manager as an honest and trustworthy employee.
So instead, you head back to the restaurant and pull your boss aside. You apologize for the error, and let them know that you’ve already figured out which servers would be best to handle the group coming in (because you’re working on being a proactive employee).
Your boss isn’t thrilled, but they’re glad you figured out the error and told them about it before it was too late. You make a plan with them to be more careful in the future, and with a bit of extra work to make up for the mistake, you pull off the group serving without a hitch.
You made a mistake that could have caused big problems for your colleagues and your boss. But instead of panicking or lying, you used it as an opportunity to demonstrate your accountability.
Your boss will remember this, and they’ll feel confident that you’ve learned your lesson and will be more careful in the future. Despite the setback, their trust in you has deepened, making for a better working relationship.
Managing up requires you to be a patient, empathetic, and observant person. These traits aren’t always easy to maintain, especially in a stressful work environment.
Hopefully, reading some of these examples has shown you that managing up is indeed worth the hard work and practice. As you begin to practice it, you’ll see how it improves your relationship with your boss, makes your working life easier, and fast tracks your career path.