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Managing Up: The Do's And Don'ts And Why It's Important For Success

By | Published on | 7 min read
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“Help me, help you!” Jerry Maguire famously shouted. In the film, Jerry was a sports manager who was up at dawn every day in what he called a “pride-swallowing siege” for his client who had no idea just how hard his manager worked for him. 

Like him, your manager probably has a lot on their plate. They’re likely stressed out, overworked, and perhaps in over their heads working hard for you (yes, you!), your team, and themselves. They’re in and out of meetings, checking emails, setting team objectives, overseeing budgets and projects, onboarding, tracking performance, and sharing results to their manager. That’s a lot for one person to do, let alone to do well. 

This is your opportunity to be a team player and stellar employee by helping your manager help you. You do this by “managing up.” 

What Is Managing Up (And Why Should You Care)?

Managing up is all about making your manager’s life easier. 

Hold up! Why would you want to make their life easier?! That’s the leader’s job! Or is it? A true team player and all-star employee with goals of moving up in their career would tell you otherwise. Your boss may make the final goal, but there are points for assists, plus the whole team wins when they score. In other words, if you help your boss, they look great and so do you. 

Mary Abbajay, the author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, told WSJ that “it is about learning how to work well with somebody who may work differently than you.” Managing up, therefore, means that you understand your boss’ goals, position, blind spots, and objectives. You help them to meet their expectations and needs.

Real-Life Work Examples Of Managing Up

Let’s say that you know that your boss is so bogged down with budgetary meetings and project planning that they can’t possibly know the status of a task you’re working on. Managing up is intuiting this gap in their awareness and poses an opportunity for you. Rather than faulting them for not knowing the status of your project already (like, hello, that’s part of your job!), simply give them a quick update so that they’re informed. No blind spots or surprises. 

Then, if their boss asks them about the project, they can communicate the results. They’ll look good and informed on daily tasks, despite everything else that’s on their plate. This reflects well on them, their team, and you—the employee who had the foresight and great communication and collaboration skills to keep your manager in the loop. Your manager now knows that you’ve got their back and will remember that in future situations.

Or, pretend that you foresee a problem. Managing up is to bring this problem to their attention right away, rather than waiting for them to catch it because “that’s their job.” 

Going a step further, not only do you point out the problem, but you’ve also thought of a few simple solutions so that they don’t have to. Now your boss can inform upper management of the issue and provide solutions.

How Managing Up Helps You And Your Career

The idea is that managing up is a win-win for you, your boss, your team, and your organization. Helping them will help you and your career. Managing up is all about relationship-building with your boss, who, whether you like it or not, plays a significant role in your career trajectory and your daily happiness, autonomy, purpose, and engagement at work.

Your manager can put you on the best, biggest, and most visible projects. They can make you the star of the show! They can teach you how to become a leader like them, how to think more critically, and how to set and meet career goals. They can help you fine-tune your skills to find more purpose in your work. Great leaders can help you see your own strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement. 

Or they can do the opposite, unfortunately.

The Importance Of Improving Your Relationship With Your Boss

The truth about relationships is that however you feel about someone, they probably feel the same way about you. Or, at least they can guess how you feel about them. Humans are highly intuitive beings. Think of how dogs, for instance, always know when you’re sad, mad, or happy. Humans are much smarter than dogs and can pick up on your vibe instantly. (Your Monday morning mood swings aren’t fooling anyone.)

Ask yourself this: If you don’t want to help your manager by managing up, then why should they want to help you by managing down? Having a less-than-great relationship with your manager isn’t doing you (or your career) any favors, especially if they have the power to fire you. 

Holding a grudge against them will only hurt you. If you find your manager challenging to work with, try to think of what they’re teaching you about yourself. After all, you can only change yourself and your reaction to others, you cannot change them.

The Do’s Of Managing Up 

Now that you understand why managing up is important for your success (and your boss’), let’s talk about the do’s and don’ts.

  • Do Get To Know Your Manager

Learn more about the human behind your manager. Find out what they like, dislike, and value most. Discover what their goals and objectives are and how they work best. See if there’s an opportunity for you to help them (and help yourself in doing so). 

Some of these findings you may be able to intuit on your own and others may require a conversation. Taking the first step by showing that you’re interested in knowing more about them and learning what they care about will do wonders for your relationship.   

  • Do An Honest Self-Assessment

Consider how your colleagues and your manager view you. How do you conduct yourself at work? Do they think that you’re a hard-working, positive, and engaged team player? Is it possible that you can be challenging and disengaged at times? Don’t go hard on yourself but take a moment to put yourself in your manager’s shoes and see what you glean about your role in the working relationship. 

  • Do Adapt 

You cannot change your manager (no matter how hard you try). But you can change yourself and how you react to others. Work with your boss, rather than against them. 

Remember: “Help me, help you!” Try to let go of any negative feelings you may have against them and know that, like you, they’re doing their best with what they have. Use your own self-assessment and what you know of your boss’ goals to adapt how you work with them.

  • Do Be Proactive

Managing up takes some effort and proactivity on your part. Like our earlier real-life examples of managing up, if you know that your manager is too busy to notice something, be proactive and bring it to their attention.  

The Don’ts Of Managing Up 

Remember, managing up is about helping your manager and making their work lives easier. Anything that goes against that is probably a “don’t” do. 

  • Don’t Manipulate The Situation Or Others

Managing up is not about trying to manipulate every situation for your own personal benefit, no matter the cost. Don’t throw your colleagues under the bus or go above your manager to share your win. Managing up isn't managing above your immediate boss (don’t do that). You’re not trying to become your boss or show everyone how under-qualified they are compared to you. Managing up is about helping them.     

  • Don’t Keep Doing What Frustrates Your Manager 

Now that you know what your boss likes and doesn’t like, don’t keep doing what you know frustrates them. For example, if they always get upset at you for arriving at the office late, you can deduce that they dislike tardiness, so do your best to be on time. Use your power to remove the obstacles that block you and your manager from having a positive, helpful relationship. Again, you’re trying to help them, not frustrate and challenge them unnecessarily. 

  • Don’t Add More To Your Manager’s Plate 

Adding more work to your boss’ plate isn’t managing up effectively. That means don’t bend over backward to take on your boss’ work when you’re already too busy. In fact, if you take on more work to help them, but you don’t fully understand the task or have the bandwidth yourself, you may just be frustrating them more. (And then you may resent them for not being more grateful for your generous help.) 

Working With Your Manager’s Strengths And Weaknesses

Remember that your manager is only human. They (probably) don’t have superpowers. Like you, your manager has strengths, weaknesses, good and bad personality traits, and personal goals. They want to have a nice working relationship with everyone and help you (and them) succeed. 

The joy of being on a team is that everyone brings their strengths to the field and works together to watch for each other’s blind spots. Help them help you.

Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!

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