By Dr Eugene Brink
Countless books and articles have analysed managing and leading subordinates and teams.
However, very little has been said about “managing up” – a term referring to the relationship with your boss or direct manager. It is perplexing that something as pivotal as this is so neglected in popular and academic circles.
Whether you have a sound and productive relationship with your boss, or one that is characterised by mistrust and strife, it remains one of the most important relationships in your life.
“Having a healthy, positive relationship with your boss makes your work life much easier ─ it’s also good for your job satisfaction and your career. But some managers don’t make it easy. Bad bosses are the stuff of legend,” writes Dana Rousmaniere, managing editor of Harvard Business Review Insight Center. “Even if your boss has some serious shortcomings, it’s in your best interest, and it’s your responsibility to make the relationship work.”
Roger Dean Duncan, bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance, says the primary ingredient in job satisfaction is not the office layout, equipment, workload, salary or benefits. “It’s the relationship with the boss. In fact, one study showed that 65% of workers surveyed would choose a new boss over a pay raise.”
A frequent problem at companies is that people get promoted on account of their technical prowess and not their management abilities. Hence, says Rousmaniere, your boss could be one (or more) of many manager types: a brand new one, an insecure boss, an all-knowing or indecisive boss, one who gives conflicting messages, one who is hands-off, or one who isn’t as smart as you.
But how do we manage up? How do we convey our fears, aspirations and concerns to the person that holds the metaphorical power over your professional life and death, in a way that is constructive and effective? The following are a few tips to make this never-easy process a little more bearable.
- Anticipate their needs and serve them
This certainly doesn’t mean you have to be a suck-up, but to be able to establish and serve your boss’ needs and goals is a large part of what win-win success entails. Rousmaniere says knowing how to anticipate your boss’s needs is a lesson we can all learn from the best executive assistants. “You need to understand what makes your boss tick (and what ticks her off) if you want to get buy-in for your ideas.
“All employees should know their direct manager’s goals, objectives, and desired outcomes. If you aren’t clear on those things, now’s the time to set up a one-on-one meeting to fix that. Why? Because everything you do is directly tied to that. By understanding his or her goals, you’ll be able to see how your work ties in with the group’s success” says career coach Lea McLeod on career advice website The Muse.
McLeod adds that you also need to align your needs with his or her goals. “Tell her how the project will help you become a liaison for her team, how your presentation will impact the team’s success, or how that introduction will boost her reputation as a manager and mentor.”
- Be a genuine source of help and do your work well
Rousmaniere says this means being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company. “That’s why the best path to a healthy relationship begins and ends with doing your job, and doing it well.”
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said: “Effective people do two things: they strive to do excellent work, and they prioritise.”
McLeod says you should therefore do both. “When you do your job well, you give your manager something to brag about in staff meetings. It’s professional capital and a point of pride for him or her. What better way is there to manage up?”
- Tell him or her how to utilise your talents
We often take it for granted that managers should instantly and automatically sense what you’re good at and how to leverage your talents. Yet, this is not always the case and it is often up to the employee to redress such a situation. “What are your strengths? What does your Myers-Briggs or DISC typology say about you? How do you deal with pressure, conflict, deadlines, and time management? What assets do you bring to the table ─ and how do they complement your manager’s strengths?” says McLeod.
“Once you have a firm grasp on these things, have a conversation about how best to leverage what you bring to the organisation. Managing up is a process of combining the best of both of you to create success for everyone.”
- De-escalate, diagnose and compensate
Mary Abbajay, author of MANAGING UP: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, says an incompetent manager doesn’t have to derail your career and there are steps available to you to remedy a situation where someone was promoted on technical grounds rather than management expertise.
The first step is to de-escalate your anger. “Let go of the anger and replace it with empathy, compassion, or even humour. Put yourself in your boss’s shoes. How would you feel if you were elevated into a position that you weren’t qualified for? How would you want your team to treat you? This perspective will enable you to make strategic choices.”
Secondly, diagnose the incompetence. “Try to figure out exactly how the incompetence shows up. Does she lack experience? Is her decision-making poor? Does she not hold people accountable? If you can pinpoint and prioritise the problems, you and your team can create targeted strategies to address the deficiency.”
Lastly, compensate and cover. “Look for opportunities to shine by doing great work and becoming your boss’s biggest asset. Find opportunities to compensate for your boss’s weakness. Offer to cover for her when she is out.”
Dana Rousmaniere, 23 January 2015, “What everyone should know about managing up”, https://hbr.org/2015/01/what-everyone-should-know-about-managing-up.
Lea McLeod, n.d., “10 ways to get your boss to trust you completely”, https://www.themuse.com/advice/10-ways-to-get-your-boss-to-trust-you-completely.
Roger Dean Duncan, 26 May 2018, “Why managing up is a skill-set you need”, https://www.forbes.com/sites/rodgerdeanduncan/2018/05/26/why-managing-up-is-a-skillset-you-need/#599de31d37fd.