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Three Tips to Successfully Manage Up

My family and I recently visited with some friends who are probably more like extended family than acquaintances.  Even though our kids are about the same age, the husband/father of this group is about 10 years younger than me and likes to pick my brain about different issues that arise when trying to navigate the wonderful world of work.  This most recent conversation eventually turned to how he had gotten promoted about six months ago to run a team of five people.  While he had run project teams before, this was his first experience running a permanent team and he was facing some surprising challenges.  He was not too surprised by the challenges associated with his team, but he was completely caught off guard by the challenges that came from trying to manage his boss.

It is no secret that the dynamics between you and your boss may change as you progress through your career.  When you're an individual contributor, you only have to worry about yourself and reporting up.  When you take on a management role you not only have to report up, but manage up as well.  You have to manage expectations, impressions and reputations.  You are responsible for making sure that those above you view your team in the most positive light possible.  Some managers do this out of a sense of ethics and obligation.  Others do it out of a sense of self preservation.  Regardless of driving factor for doing so, however, managing up is a critical skill. 

By definition, managing up means building a successful working relationship with a superior, manager, or employer.

This of course begs the question of how exactly does one manage up?  It is a very tricky endeavor that can vary based on the particular boss and the given organization, but there are some common themes that do seem to cut across all situations. 

  1. The first step is to listen to your boss and understand their needs and drivers.  Let's face it, your boss is just like you in that they have a team of people that they are responsible for, and another set of people they are responsible to (i.e., their bosses).  Just like any customer, the first step in working with a boss effectively is to understand what they need and show them that you and your team are doing what needs to be done to take care of those needs.
  2. The next step in managing up follows closely to the first one which is to make sure your team looks good.  Sure there will be times where someone on your team does something that you'll need to escalate and have to get your boss involved, but only do that when it really matters.  Don't gripe and complain about your team.  Praise more than you criticize, and only point out problems when there are real issues that warrant upper management involvement.  When you do point those out, provide suggested solutions.  Of course doing this also helps with the third step.
  3. The third, and perhaps most important step in managing up, is to make it to where your boss does not have to worry about you.  One of the best examples of this was a few years back when I was managing a rather large project and one my team members asked to do something that was really risky.  I wouldn't approve.  He begged me and said that he thought that our VP at the time let me do pretty much whatever I wanted to.  My reply to that was, "yes he does, because he knows I won't sign off on bad ideas like this one."  In other words my boss had learned over the years of working together that he could trust me to not make bad decisions.  Building this kind of relationship has two important benefits.  First, it means your boss can leave you alone and not be checking on you constantly so that you can focus on you and your team getting your jobs done.  Second it means that when you do have to bring something to your boss, they are much more likely to listen to you.  Often getting your boss to really listen is the single most important part of managing up.

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About the Author

Jimmy Brown, Ph.D. is a senior level management consultant with eighteen years of experience leading efforts to develop and implement practical strategies for business performance improvement. Dr. Brown has held senior level consulting positions at leading firms such as Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Accenture and Hewlett-Packard.

He can be reached at www.jimmybrownphd.com or via Twitter @jimmybrownphd