The dos and don’ts of managing up

Photo credit: Aaron Amat, Shutterstock
Photo credit: Aaron Amat, Shutterstock

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 basics, and some Dos and Don’ts.

What is managing up?

In a nutshell, most career experts agree that managing up is a method of career development that’s 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 on a higher-up, but instead 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 (because that means everyone has more breathing room). 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 (whether you’re gunning for new responsibilities, a promotion, or a new job), the respect and confidence of your current boss is one of the biggest aces you can have up your sleeve. And 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?


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 these:

  • 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?” 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.


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.

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

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    • Ddumba
    • March 21, 2013

    Wonderful, straight forward and insightful guidelines. They look simple and doable. One has to just pay attention to details outlined to come up with better results thus managing up. Successful and reliable employees are seen doing exactly as stated. Thanks you.

    • Margaret
    • March 21, 2013

    Let’s be honest. For most of us, “managing up” means making up for our bosses’ deficiencies. Your boss can’t figure out how to open an Excel attachment, so when the financial reports come out each week, you print them out and leave them on his chair. Your boss doesn’t remember to schedule performance reviews, so you make her an Outlook calendar with automatic reminders for each person in her department. Your boss has been tasked by the big boss with reporting on what the little people have accomplished. But your boss has no idea what it is that any of you do, so you each write a monthly productivity report that he submits and takes credit for. Really, it’s just taking over all of the functions that secretaries used to do. Back when companies actually bothered to staff secretarial positions. Sure, it’ll help you win points with your boss. But you’ll never get promoted out of a position where you can be of service to him or her. You’ll be co-dependently running his or her department for the rest of your life! If you find that managing up amounts to anything more than just an occasional and choice-based aspect of your job, you need to get out of that job right quick.

      • Robynn
      • September 6, 2014

      Margaret, You seem to be missing the point a bit. Your boss probably has a great deal on his/her plate, filled with many things which you may not have the expertise or experience to handle…and s/he probably wasn’t hired based upon an ability to master Excel. Best and highest use of his/her time may necessitate that you do things to aide your boss with some of the issues you mention. While having a great secretarial assistant is important, if your company doesn’t value that…should your boss be performing those tasks at her higher pay scale, rather than someone who works for her? If your boss has a lot of meetings and strategic decisions to make…why shouldn’t s/he rely upon the team to update her regarding status and details of projects that her team members are intimately involved with on a daily basis? Why shouldn’t he be able to rely upon an assistant to pry him away from endless interruptions and calls and emergencies that detail his best-laid plans in order to help him to arrive at a meeting on time? These are not “deficiencies” as you put it. This is appropriate delegation…your boss is human too, and there are only so many hours in a day. You would be well-served to rethink your perspective if you want to properly “manage up”! If your boss never gives you credit for your greater accomplishments, that IS a deficiency. But that is the only deficiency I see here. Most of us, regardless of education or experience, have lent a hand on something “menial”. That is just part of being a team.

    • Cornelia Wakhanu
    • March 27, 2013

    Thanks a lot. I really appreciate the advice provided. These are exactly what we go through at one or other points at work.
    Managing up has always been a problem if you have no idea.

    I agree to the managing up advise. But a friend of mine could not manage to do this to credit the boss despite following the advise. To some bosses, it is fine but to some, it doe not work. some bosses would think you are a star and one day you will take over his/her position, advice from another blog elsewhere.

    I also noticed that some bosses would like being credited from a star from his/her junior. But some bosses would prefer to be supportive to those who seem not to know much to achieve as a team in an organization, The weak are praised as they are not threats to the boss. However you try to do for your boss to earn credit (of which i believe, although he earns it, I also earn it as part of the organization when we achieve), the stronger staff committed and uplifting the goals’ achievement, is overworked and frustrated. For me, I have my way of working with such a boss. I try to approach my fellow team members and try to see if they can accept to get empowered. Some do accept while others feel not necessary as they have the god fathers/mothers to protect them from sticking to their posts. The better performing are never promoted to these type of bosses as they maintain you to keep doing for the rest. promoting the stronger is like making them closer to you and taking their positions in future. They will avoid even to delegate you to act on their behalf so that you the stronger one continue work as the weak safeguards the post for them while away. Acting on their behalf, might show how strong you are and be recommended for the their position in future. As for me, i always advise my network people who go through this type of bosses, ‘TO CONTINUE PERFORMING BETTER DESPITE THOSE CHALLENGES. DO IT EVEN BETTER AND TURN TO EVEN DO YOUR COLLEAGUES IF THEY FEEL NOT COMMITTED AS THEY ARE PROTECTED BY THE BOSS. AS ONE DAY, THE TIME WILL REACH WHEN YOU WILL HAVE TO MOVE ON, EITHER REDUCTION OF STAFFING DUE TO FUNDING, CHANGE IN PROGRAMMING FROM EMERGENCIES TO DEVELOPMENT ORIENTED, JUST BEING FIRED WITH NO GREAT REASON OR WITH REASON, HAVING DECIDED TO QUIT PEACEFULLY AFTER GETTING ANOTHER PLACE FOR CHANGE AND ADDITION FOR YOUR EXPERTISE. THEN YOU WILL BE PROUD THAT YOU WILL BE GOING DESPITE BEING PREPARED TO MEET CHALLENGES ELSEWHERE , YOU WILL HAVE LEFT A BIG GAP-WHY?. BECAUSE NOT ALL YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES WILL BE FILLED DESPITE FILLING YOUR POST. THIS IS WHEN HIS/HER BOSS WILL COME TO KNOW WHY THINGS NOT GOING WELL AND THE WEAK ONES WILL REMAIN AND HE WILL GO. THEN A NEW BOSS WILL COME IN WHO MIGHT IDENTIFY AND MENTOR THE REMAINING”.

    manage up for him/her no worry, but let him/her realize your contribution but not frustrate you that the organization can loose its credibility. We all aim to uplift the name of the organization but if your boss is doing fishy things that can affect the entire organization, \i will not bear with it to please him/her to gain favour to keep my daily bread. What we do we must be accountable. If it only affects me, I will bear with it as part of the difficult situations I promise to persevere and adapt to them during hiring, But if it affects the programme, I will try to approach him/her. If not, then I will have to blow the whistle even if his/her higher boss favours and does not listen to me. I am ready to be fired than protecting my position when things continue going wrong. My advise is that always to my network. “Managing up is good but must also use your conscience and weight the effect on the organization and beneficiaries. The organization is made up of us individual staff.”

    Thanks for the blog on managing up.

      • Angela Perry-Spruill
      • October 30, 2013

      This is a great article! As someone who has spent over 12 years in positions reporting directly to the organization’s chief executive and as a member of senior management team, I can attest to the credibility of your advice. The Do’s and Don’ts are totally on target. Managing up is a real skill and can be developed over time. Of course, there will be trial and error based on individuals and the organizational culture, but the effort can have a great payoff. In my case it led to promotions (performance based but also perception based, I think. I established myself as highly capable with what I knew as well as one who didn’t shrink from challenges and was very interested in the bigger picture of the organization’s vision and goals.) The promotions led to exposure to a broader network of individuals who have been helpful in my professional development whether as coaches, mentors or references. Managing up exposed strengths I had that I didn’t even realize that I’ve been able to translate into a value-add for subsequent employers.

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