I ranted on LinkedIn last week about the Microsoft study that reported that 85% of managers are paranoid that their remote employees are ineffective. I came down hard on managers for not knowing what their employees were accomplishing. But Gordon Goldschleger commented that, while managers were at fault, employees could do more to manage up. And he’s so right!
Now, I’m on your side here. It’s not your fault if your boss doesn’t know what they expect from you or can’t tell whether you’re achieving it. But while it’s not your fault, it is your problem. Sigh. Leaving your manager in the dark will amplify their paranoia and open you to even worse forms of bad management like micromanagement or open hostility. So, because I don’t want that for you, I’m going to give you some strategies to manage up.
If your boss isn’t managing you, you’re going to have to manage up. But what exactly does that entail?
What does managing up mean?
I checked out a few definitions of managing up and was entirely underwhelmed by what I found. For example, one article in Harvard Business Review says, “It means being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.” That’s not too helpful, is it?
Another article refers to managing up as “consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss … understanding your boss’s position and requirements and making yourself known as a stellar employee by exceeding her expectations and needs.” I felt like I needed a tall glass of water to wash that saccharine crap down. Gack!
Fortunately, I eventually found some helpful advice from the fabulous Whitney Johnson. She says, “Try turning this power struggle on its head and think of your boss as a client – as if you were working freelance. Johnson encourages us to see managing up as “solving problems your stakeholders need solved.”
That’s more like it. Managing up is reversing the direction of the relationship. Instead of your manager keeping you on the straight and narrow, you do it for them. You help them be the manager you need to accomplish what is required of you. It’s the old help me help you scenario.
Now that we’re clear about what it is, how do you pull it off?
How You Can Manage Up Effectively
You can take these simple steps to help your boss be the manager that you (and your stakeholders) need them to be.
1. Clarify expectations
One of the most costly omissions of a lackluster boss is that they fail to communicate what they want or need from you. (Which, unfortunately, doesn’t stop them from being disappointed that you didn’t deliver it.) To rectify this, ask open-ended questions such as “As we kick off this project, what are you counting on me to deliver?” If it works, great. You’ve taught your boss the first lesson of Management 101—You have to tell people what you expect of them!
Now, for some managers, that’s not going to be enough. It’s not just that they don’t communicate what they need; they don’t even know what they need. In that case, be ready to shape the answer with a question like, “It seems like Gena has the design covered. Does it make sense for me to focus on the roll-out?” Then, slowly mold the expectation until you feel confident you know what to do. “Ok, I’ll focus on the roll-out. What are your thoughts on which regions go first?”
Another way to get clear on expectations is to get a sense of how your boss is being evaluated. That’s because one of the best ways to manage up is by helping your boss shine in the eyes of their manager. You can ask your boss, “What is Laura expecting of you?” Or, if you have a relationship with your boss’s boss, you can request it directly, “Laura, what are you counting on our team to deliver with this project?” Even if your boss is a weak link in the middle, you’ll be working in the right direction if you’re clear on what the big boss needs.
2. Ask for what you need
Once you’re clear on what you need to do, your attention should shift to getting what you need to be successful. But, again, your manager probably hasn’t clued in to their responsibility for securing resources. No worries, you’re there with a few gentle hints to get them focused on what matters. Try, “If I’m in charge of the roll-out, I will need connections to the field. Could you connect me with Eric in Atlanta?”
Again, there’s a chance you’ll get nothing in response to an open-ended request because it requires too much effort or because your manager wouldn’t even know how to make a request of Eric. You’ll need to do more heavy lifting if you need a round two. For example, “I realized I hadn’t summarized the project for you. So I’ve drafted an email describing what we’re looking for. If you send that to Eric and copy me, I’ll follow up with him.”
You want to be a little careful in managing up so that you don’t become condescending or make it feel to your manager like you’re taking over. If you position it as I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, or I don’t want you to get into the weeds, your manager is less likely to get defensive.
3. Share what you’re prioritizing
Once you’ve got your plan, go back to your boss with a high-level overview of what you’re doing first and what you plan to do later. That gives the boss a chance to shift the order of your priorities (unlikely) and gives you a confirmation point in case they flip out about your priorities after you’ve started (more likely). For example, you might say, “I’ve built out a plan, and to get the pilot going as fast as we’d like, I’ve pushed the western region out until May. How does that land?”
4. Check-in with updates
Here’s the tricky one. Your crappy boss might be content to ignore you until the work is due. Tempting. So tempting. But when you’re managing up, you take the initiative and help your boss focus on the appropriate checkpoints. “Here’s where we are with one week left before the pilot. I would particularly value your input on the town hall messaging.”
5. Manage their time
Aimless managers are often terrible time managers. You pop by their office, and 15 minutes later, they’re still telling you some irrelevant story about the last meeting they were in. Part of managing up is helping your manager use their time wisely. Take control of the agenda to make sure you get what you need. For example, “We only have 30 minutes, so I’d like to spend the first ten sharing the update, and then I’d like 15 minutes to get your input on the talking points. I’ll leave 5 minutes at the end to align on the next steps. Does that work?”
6. Summarize your contributions
Guess what else your cut-rate manager isn’t likely to do—give you feedback or the recognition you deserve. That’s another chance for you to manage up. At the end of your project, summarize what you accomplished. Heck, you can do your own performance review if you’d like. It will probably be a relief to your manager. “We got the rolled-out on time and budget, and it got a great reception from the field team. I’m working on a better FAQ document for the next phase because that’s where I didn’t put enough energy, but overall, I think this was a big success.” The good news is that your ineffective manager will likely agree and parrot this feedback to others because that’s the easiest thing to do.
Managing up is not slimy or manipulative; it’s simply getting what you need to do the job you’re paid to do. Of course, it would be nice if your manager could do that without prompting, but you can’t have everything. So instead, you can flip the relationship on its head and subtly manage your manager. Sadly, they probably won’t offer you a cut of the pay cheque they aren’t earning, but at least your efforts will pay off in more traction in your job and less hassle.
How to handle the Flip-Flopping Boss
Whitney Johnson Managing Up Without Sucking Up
Karen Grant The 8 Tips on How to Manage Up Successfully
I really love the boss as client framing – very helpful. Another helpful element I see is bringing in and aligning any performance related goals to those check in and summaries. And if you have something written at the end of a project, or quarterly, that’s great too. Some good open ended questions to foster positivity (at the beginning ) “what does success look like (any metrics?)” and at the end “Is there anything I should do different next time?” Super series!
I really love the boss as client framing – very helpful. Another helpful element I see is bringing in and aligning any performance related goals to those check in and summaries. And if you have something written at the end of a project, or quarterly, that’s great too. Some good open ended questions to foster positivity (at the beginning ) “what does success look like (any metrics?)” and at the end “Is there anything I should do different next time?” Super series! x