The Right (and Wrong) Ways to Manage Up

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As the phrase “managing up” has risen in popularity in recent years, it’s taken on a slew of definitions. Here’s a primer on the right (and wrong) ways to manage up.

What is managing up?

Most career experts agree that managing up is a method of career development based on consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss. It doesn’t mean avoiding work, rebelling, kissing up, or trying to turn the tables. Instead, it means understanding your boss’s position and requirements, and making yourself known as a stellar employee by exceeding her expectations and needs.

How can managing up help my career?

First, in your day-to-day working life, you’ll be happier and more fulfilled if you feel you’re working efficiently, communicating well with your boss, and doing your job in a way that makes his job easier. Using the following tips will help you establish a great working relationship, whether you’re on day one of a new job, or have been with the same organization for years.

Second, when you want to advance your career, the respect and confidence of your current boss is one of the biggest aces you can have up your sleeve. There’s hardly a better way to stand out as a valuable asset than to have a track record of reliable, thoughtful work behind you.

So, how to start managing up?

Do:

Get to know your boss.

To be able to communicate in a way that works for her, and to better understand what she wants from you, consider questions like:

  • What is she ultimately trying to accomplish at this organization?
  • What does she value most (personally and professionally)?
  • Note her style. Does she seem to prefer talking in person or over email? Does she make decisions based more on data or hunches?
  • How have past career experiences influenced what she does today?
  • What role does she envision you playing in her plans?

You’ll probably find some of these answers easily; others you might be able to intuit. But you might also find you can seize the opportunity for a conversation.

When you make the move to talk, take care to come across as curious and respectful, not gossipy or prying.

Think along these lines: “I want to make a great impact here, but I’m new to development. I know you have a lot of experience that I could benefit from learning about, and wonder if we could set up a time for me to ask you some questions about your past experiences and current goals.”

Or just take the time to spell out details on a smaller scale: “Does it work better for you if I send you weekly email updates about my projects, or would you rather talk about them in the monthly staff meeting?”0

Your boss will probably be flattered that you’re taking the time to consider her perspective, and you’ll look attentive and ambitious—a win-win straight out the gate!

Anticipate and jump in.

Always offer your help during a work “emergency,” but also make a habit of paying attention to the normal rhythms of your organization and discover where you might be able to pitch in more regularly. For example, if you’ve noticed that your boss seems exasperated by designing event invitations, offer to draft a couple of ideas for his review before the next event. Or if copy editing the newsletter is taking up lots of his day, say you’d be happy to give it a second pair of eyes if that would help. Even if he doesn’t take you up on it, you’ve highlighted your concern for his time and an ability to think beyond established patterns.

Imagine the bigger picture.

If you’re crabby because you think you do a better job than your boss, take a moment to think about her decision to hire and work with you: the best leaders deliberately build their organizations with people they think are brighter and more talented than they are. So if you glean that’s the case in your situation, she might actually deserve kudos. Plus, if you really are a rock star, you won’t have a lame boss forever—your stellar work will propel you to higher and higher places.

Don’t:

Try to manipulate.

Being a disingenuous “yes man” in meetings, relentlessly flattering your boss, or presenting things as unrealistically good are bad habits. If you want to be seen as supportive, friendly, and positive, be those things, not their evil twins.

Attempt to cover anything up.

Even in situations where you really don’t want to disappoint, the truth will out. So when you make a mistake or something goes wrong, don’t blame others or try to make excuses, just own up to the situation immediately. Even if your boss is upset in the moment, your expediency will allow the problem to be solved sooner, and cement your reputation in the long run as honest and mature. You can’t build mutual trust without being trustworthy yourself.

Get involved in office politics.

Working with the same people every day means lots of relationship management, and at least the occasional personal conversation, but commit yourself to staying professional. Showing favoritism or allying with coworkers who have deceitful intent is a sure-fire way to go wrong. Strive to treat everyone fairly, including your boss, and check your personal baggage at the door.

Share your story!

Tell us how managing up has worked for you—or not.

April GreeneAbout the author: April Greene is a former editor for Idealist.org.

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