Managing Up: It’s More About You Than About Your Boss
03.21.18   by Michael Phillips

“How can I manage my boss?” I constantly get this question from people I coach. Sometimes there is an actual problem with their boss, but, just as often, there is simply a behavioral challenge for the subordinate. The real questions are: where does an individual actually have control and what can be done to improve the situation? Over the years, I have developed a list of five critical ways individuals can “manage up” by simply managing themselves.

Communicate to your boss the way they like to be communicated to. I once worked with a senior leader who was really struggling with a new CEO. Every week she prepared very detailed reports of her activities and the status of all of her projects. These were meticulous and lengthy documents, which she sent out as email attachments. Despite this effort, the CEO never seemed to know what she was doing and often seemed surprised by things that were mentioned in conversation that the subordinate knew she had covered in great detail in one of her weekly reports. She began to grow very frustrated and the relationship became increasingly strained. We determined that this particular boss did not like to read long reports—in reality, he did not like to read much of anything. He did, however, enjoy conversation—especially over dinner or lunch—that presented things in a very executive summary fashion. She adjusted her communication style and the relationship improved immediately.

Play well in the sand box with your colleagues. One of the major causes of stress for bosses is a team that does not work well together. Bosses appreciate subordinates who find meaningful ways to help their teammates, seek opportunities to collaborate, and are committed to the success of the team, not just themselves. One sure-fire way to better “manage up” is to work on your relationships with your peers and create value there. Good team players are recognized and appreciated.

Align, align, align. Nothing is more important than having your goals completely aligned with those of your boss. The best Talent Management Systems cascade goals so that subordinates can review their boss’ goals before setting their own. If this is the case for you, then alignment should not be terribly difficult. If it is not, then you are going to have to work a bit harder. Have meaningful conversations with your boss and then be ready to adjust and iterate throughout the goal-setting process. Once the goals are set, make it a part of your ongoing conversations with your boss to make sure that what you are doing is a part of, and will lead to, their success as well as your own.

Be a positive and supportive voice. Everyone needs positive affirmation and often bosses feel as though all they hear about are problems. Give your boss positive feedback and thanks. It is surprising how a little of this can go a very long way. Who knows, you might even reinforce a good behavior that you would like to see more of.

Show commitment and accountability. Do what you say you are going to do and take ownership within your area of responsibility. Be someone who pushes information to your boss so that they don’t need to come and pull it from you. Show a commitment to the team by doing something above and beyond the responsibilities that have been spelled out for you. A little discretionary effort in helping the team demonstrates your commitment and accountability and will not go unnoticed by your boss.

Managing up is usually more about managing yourself than anything else. Understanding that you have more power and responsibility to adjust your own behavior to work well with your boss than the other way around is a key to not only being successful, but happy in your work.