How to manage up and build an effective relationship with your boss
Feeling stressed or anxious about your interactions – or lack thereof – with your boss? You need to manage up. Find out how to deploy this essential skill.
Are you making the effort to manage up at work?
No? Not sure what that means?
We all have external and internal customers at work. Your external customers are, of course:
- Your company’s actual customers
These are valuable relationships that require care and maintenance on your part to be successful at your job and represent your company well.
It’s the same with internal customers. These are the people within your company you need to maintain positive relationships with to be personally successful in your career, including:
- Team members and peers
- Colleagues in other departments
- Human resources (HR)
It’s the last group that concerns us here.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What is means to manage up to your manager
- The benefits of managing up
- Seven strategies for building a stronger, more healthy working relationship
How do you “manage up” to your manager?
Managing up is about looking up the organizational ladder and building effective working relationships with your supervisors – the people with control over our performance reviews, salary raises, promotions, team and project assignments, and overall day-to-day contentment in the workplace.
To be clear, managing up isn’t about:
- Getting your manager to like you personally
- Being excessively flattering toward managers (kissing up)
- Agreeing with everything your manager says
- Coercing or manipulating managers into taking a certain action
- Undermining or circumventing your manager
- Being condescending or passive aggressive
- Attempting to take over your manager’s responsibilities
And it goes beyond merely producing accurate, quality work and adhering to deadlines – though that’s a great start and goes a long way.
Simply put, managing up is about fostering mutual trust and respect, and developing a system in which you and your manager can communicate honestly and transparently. Your manager needs to believe that:
- You’re honest and straightforward
- You’ll act with integrity in all circumstances
- They can rely upon you to exercise good judgment and make sound decisions
- You’ll make them look good to their own higher-ups
After all, your performance and behavior reflects upon them.
What are the benefits of managing up (and consequences if you don’t)?
Employees might claim that managing up isn’t their role. They say it’s their manager’s responsibility to reach out to them and build relationships with their subordinates. They just want to focus on doing their jobs. But that’s incredibly short-sighted thinking.
In the workplace, interpersonal relationships and the strength of your connections matter just as much as your performance.
It’s your career on the line – no one else’s. Ask yourself: To what degree do you want to excel, and how quickly?
Employees who take the initiative to manage up can reap a lot of benefits:
- Avoid being micromanaged
- Assert more control over their work – what they do and how they do it
- Communicate more effectively and frequently with their managers, and have more certainty about their manager’s expectations and opinions of their performance
- Alleviate stress and anxiety
- Enjoy better reviews, more money and faster advancement
- Open the door to more opportunities at work
If you don’t manage up, you’ll likely have poorer communication with your manager, which can lead to misalignment and misunderstanding about words and actions. Your performance could suffer, which impacts your career. You’ll undoubtedly be more stressed on a daily basis.
Fact: Many people leave managers, not jobs or companies. If you have a less than optimal relationship with your manager and don’t do anything to improve it, you may decide to leave and start over elsewhere. But if you don’t take the initiative to manage up at your new job, you risk repeating the same mistakes, creating a cycle.
So, what can you do to improve your relationship with your current and future bosses, and make your life easier?
Strategy 1: Figure out your manager’s leadership and communication style, and tailor your approach accordingly.
It just makes sense that you should align your words, behaviors and communications with your manager’s preferences.
- You’ll both be on the same page, with fewer irritations and misunderstandings.
- You’ll elicit a more positive, engaged response from them.
You could spend a lot of time trying to analyze your manager to figure out their leadership style and communication style. In doing so, you could make some wrong guesses.
Instead, ask them directly. Examples of questions:
- How would you explain your leadership style? How do you like to interact with your team and how do you want us to interact with you?
- Can you describe your ideal employee? What traits do you value most?
- How would you like for me to communicate with you? Does the media vary depending on the circumstance, or do you have a general preference for in-person versus electronic communication?
- How often should I communicate with you?
- What issues do I need to run by you? What decisions can I make on my own?
- Who’s my go-to contact when you’re unavailable?
- What can I do to help you feel comfortable with what I’m doing?
On the flip side, be prepared to describe your own working style and communication preferences if your manager asks.
It can also help to email recaps to your manager after every time you meet with them. (Written documentation can be especially helpful if you have a manager who tends to change their mind frequently.) Just be sure to let your manager know that you’ll be doing this and set that expectation upfront – and explain that it’s to clarify and confirm both your understanding of what was discussed, not because you think your manager is absent-minded and needs constant follow-ups.
Strategy 2: Watch out for clues. What’s important to them? What are their hot buttons?
Everybody has something unique that they fixate on or find annoying. Learn what your manager prioritizes versus the behaviors that could drive them up the wall and impair your relationship over time.
For example, does your manager:
- Like people to arrive to work or meetings a few minutes early?
- Enjoy having everyone participate in occasional team lunches or outings?
- Express frustration when employees offer too much detail or ask long-winded questions?
- Hate being caught off-guard?
Some of these priorities and disliked behaviors can be gleaned from asking about their leadership and communication style (see above).
It’s very simple: Pay attention to their cues and, when in doubt, ask. Do what they like. Avoid what they don’t like.
Strategy 3: Be proactive.
If you have any personal issues that will impact your job performance or attendance, let your manager know. Don’t make them seek you out when they notice a problem and they have no idea what’s going on.
In terms of specific task or project assignments, gather all information upfront about what your manager expects of you, including the scope of work, your responsibilities and crucial deadlines.
- If there’s a significant problem that impacts your manager’s stated timeline, communicate that early on. Don’t wait until the last minute or until a deadline is already missed to notify your manager of an issue.
- If your manager has asked for something that’s impossible to deliver within a certain timeline given your current resources, you need to work with your manager to come up with a plan.
Your manager doesn’t want unpleasant surprises at the eleventh hour, or to simply be told no. You need to manage their expectations each step of the way. Remember: They have their own reputation to manage up the chain of command.
Want to take proactiveness a step further? Anticipate potential problems before they happen, or think about how a process or aspect of the workplace could be improved. Pitch your strongest ideas to your manager.
Strategy 4: Be selective about the problems you bring to your manager. And, if you do bring problems, show up with solutions.
Although you should be proactive about communicating major problems, be careful about bringing too many (minor) problems, conflicts or petty grievances to your manager. (Of course, this doesn’t include serious issues such as harassment or discrimination, which should be promptly reported to managers and HR personnel.)
Otherwise, you could come off as negative and difficult, or gain a reputation as a complainer. Your manager is busy and probably doesn’t want to be involved in minutiae. Managers are people too, and we can all feel overwhelmed at being bombarded with others’ problems.
For every problem you bring, have a suggested solution ready. This will ease the burden on your manager, which they’ll appreciate, and help you appear more idea driven and visionary.
If you can’t come up with a solution, consider how wise it is to bring the issue to your manager.
Bottom line: Be a problem solver, not a troublemaker.
Strategy 5: Be honest about your mistakes, and take responsibility for preventing the same mistakes going forward.
If you made a mistake or overlooked a critical issue, own up to it. Explain what happened and why – whether it was directly your fault, a collective team effort or the result of a process gone wrong that now needs resolution. Managers appreciate employees who are responsible and accountable.
If you discover the mistake first, don’t let your manager find out on their own or from a third party – be proactive in reporting it. Depending on the mistake, it could cause legal problems for the company or fracture relationships with external customers. Your manager needs to know about it as soon as possible to mitigate damage.
Naturally, your manager’s trust in you may take a hit – at least temporarily. They may worry about the same problem happening again. That’s why you need to assure them of the steps you’re taking to prevent repeating it.
Strategy 6: Evaluate and empathize rather than personalize.
It can be tempting to think that your boss doesn’t like you or doesn’t trust you when they act in a way that you perceive as negative or controlling. But recognize that your manager’s behavior toward you may not be about you personally.
You don’t know the whole story on why your boss acts the way they do. Maybe their trust was betrayed in the past. Maybe their own manager is a micromanager. You don’t know all the personal and professional pressures they’re under. We all bring past memories and experiences, as well as ingrained habits, to our current roles. Remember your manager’s humanity.
You’ll be a lot happier and more positive if you resist jumping to the conclusion that your manager’s behavior is always about you.
If you remain in regular, open communication with your manager, you shouldn’t have doubts about their opinion of your performance anyway.
Strategy 7: Learn to handle criticism well.
Much about the delivery and acceptance of criticism rests on the existing relationship between you and your manager. Depending on whether you have a strong or poor relationship, and the nature of the criticism, the conversation will look different.
If you react outwardly negatively or defensively, or express arrogance or egoism, your manager may conclude that they can’t be honest and open with you, or that you’re a difficult employee.
General tips to manage negative feedback well and salvage the relationship with your manager:
- Be careful to not convey anger or frustration. Adopt a measured tone.
- Directly ask your manager how you could improve, from their perspective.
- Engage in conversation with your manager about whether any work processes or aspects of the communication between you and your manager could be improved to prevent repeating this instance.
- Request a follow-up meeting, citing your need to think about the feedback and come up with solutions.
- If there are specific points in which you strongly disagree, respectfully explain why you disagree.
- Remember to empathize, not personalize.
Strategy 8: Speak up about what you need.
So much of the focus here is on accommodating your manager. But remember, this is a two-way street. You want to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect, and develop a system in which you both can communicate with each other honestly and openly.
So, yes, while your manager often gets the final say, don’t forget about yourself.
One of the biggest and most common employee mistakes in managing up effectively is staying silent about what you need from your manager. Speak up and give your manager feedback on what works for you. They don’t know unless you tell them.
For example, do you want to schedule a regular one-on-one meeting with your manager to discuss ongoing projects and expectations, and get continual feedback? Ask for it.
Be sure to express gratitude to your manager when they do meet your needs. Like most people, managers appreciate positive feedback and recognition.
Summing it all up
Although some employees might feel that it’s not their job to manage up, it’s actually your ticket to building an effective relationship with your boss.
It sounds like a formal term, but managing up is simply about fostering mutual trust and respect, and communicating honestly and transparently. There are specific strategies you can deploy to start doing this now. (Hint: These strategies also work on peers, as well as other internal and external customers.)
In sum, managing up is one of the best things you can do to create a more stress-free, harmonious workplace and advance your career faster.
To learn more about what makes a successful relationship between managers and employees, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to leadership and management.