What is Managing Up Really? | Managing Up Defined

Managing up has become a trendy buzzword at all levels of the corporate ecosystem.  Certainly, we all understand the concept of traditional top down management, but what exactly is managing up?

While there are few certainties in the field of management and leadership, one truth that I’ve found over decades of experience is that all managers are not strong, effective leaders.  In fact, truth be told, most have significant flaws. What does that look like in the workplace?  Well…they don’t always make the best decisions.  They miss things.  Sometimes, they’re the barrier to success on a project.  Managers typically aren’t closest to the day to day work so they don’t always understand the details or have the best information.  They also frequently don’t know what people are really thinking or how team members really feel about a particular process, issue, or task.  Like anyone else, they also sometimes don’t know what they don’t know (unconscious incompetence), so they can have huge blind spots.

While this laundry list of flaws may sound somewhat scary, it also sounds pretty normal because managers are after all human, right? Yes, but unfortunately we’re conditioned to treat them like they’re somehow all knowing and all powerful superheroes with perfect decision making skills.  While managers often possess certain strengths and advantages that enable them to make sound decisions, they also often possess certain disadvantages or weaknesses either due to their own personal failings or due to inherent disadvantages in holding a higher level position.  Sometimes leaders are actually handicapped by their ivory tower position.  They may not be as close to the customer or have their ear to the ground in terms of what staff really think or which processes are truly broken.  Guess what – they also may not be perfect.  They may have their own weaknesses or shortfalls, and be so swamped with broader responsibilities that they may not have the bandwidth to pour over the details before every decision.  As such, the truth is that for teams to operate at maximum performance levels, it’s not just important for managers to manage (down), but it’s also important for staff to continuously manage up!

My personal definition of “Managing Up”…

“A subordinate customizing their work style/behaviors to better suit their manager, taking steps to make their manager’s job easier, and/or proactively striving to optimize success for all.”

Put another way…managing up is taking things off your bosses’ plate and helping them be more effective!

What Does “Managing Up” Look Like?

The employee who actively “manages up” is one who often….

  • Anticipates problems and actively works to prevent them
  • Adjusts their style and approach to better fit their manager’s preferences
  • Are particularly flexible and willing to take on the “dog” projects that no one wants
  • Speak truth to power when necessary (being the one willing to tell the boss the ugly truth when others won’t)
  • Learns to navigate prickly or difficult boss personalities

If you’re looking at that list thinking that’s a tall order, it is!  Managing up isn’t easy, and that’s precisely why it is so important and so effective.  Most employees don’t take the time to actively manage up, so the ones who do truly stand out from the crowd.  So how do you begin to start “managing up”?

Managing Up Best Practices

  • Always propose a recommendation or two when asking your boss for help with a problem
  • Look for opportunities to “take things off their plate” – simple acts like volunteering to schedule meeting invites, book meeting rooms, develop presentation templates, conduct vendor research, etc. can produce huge time savings for your boss (and make you seem like an invaluable resource in the process)
  • Adjust your communication style to fit their preferences (e.g. if they prefer face to face, try to stop by their office more often to discuss the big picture, then just send a follow up email as needed with details)
  • Get in the habit of brainstorming/analyzing potential risks for new projects and proactively sharing the risk analysis (including recommended mitigation strategies and back up plans) with senior leadership
  • Share good news soon and bad news sooner
  • Look for opportunities to propose process changes or new innovations, and volunteer to help lead the resultant work (as appropriate)

Tips for Managing Up with Difficult Bosses

Dana Brownlee is author of The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches (to be published by Berrett-Koehler publishers January 2019).  President of Atlanta based Professionalism Matters, Inc., Dana is an acclaimed keynote speaker, corporate trainer, and team development consultant. She can be reached at danapbrownlee@professionalismmatters.com. Connect with her on Linked In or Twitter @DanaBrownlee. 

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