We’re two posts into this series on managing up. In the first post, we talked about how to get your boss to give you the direction and support you need. In the second, we considered an even better option: forming a united front to manage up along with your teammates.
I realize now that I’ve covered how to manage up, but not why you might need to. So let’s tour the terrible manager terrain and diagnose the dysfunctions that deserve the managing-up treatment.
Reasons You Might Need to Manage Up
For each version of an inadequate manager, I’ll talk a little about the shortcomings and give you a few ideas for what form managing up should take.
Managing Up When You Have a New Manager
Let’s start with the least infuriating version of an inept manager, the newbie. When you get yourself a freshly minted, green boss, they don’t even know what they don’t know. They’re naïve about the pressures and so nervous about doing a good job that they pay attention to all the wrong things and add all the wrong value. But, shucks, they’re trying!
Some of the ways you’ll need to manage up with your new manager include:
A new manager might not be shrewd about the key players in the organization. So help them navigate the political landmines by sharing the political dynamics, including your team’s allies, adversaries, and swing voters. Suggest friendlier folks your boss might want to enlist and highlight the risks with anyone known to be ornery.
If your new manager comes from outside your team, they will need time to figure out the owner’s manual for their direct reports. You can manage up by providing tips about everyone’s sweet spots and some techniques that position them for success. Please do NOT complain about your colleagues; that’s not managing up; it’s gossiping.
Managing Not Doing
Perhaps the most common redirection a new manager will need is to help them add value as a manager rather than as a producer. Draw their attention to those higher-order issues by saying, “Let me take a stab at this, and then I’d love your feedback on where it could use some case examples.”
Managing Up When You Have an Unskilled Manager
Another type of manager who will need a little help is the person who’s thrown into a leadership role without technical expertise. For the most part, I don’t think you need to be able to do the work to manage it, but sometimes something gets lost in translation. For example, the unskilled manager doesn’t know what it takes to accomplish a task (or how long). As a result, they might be prone to over-promising and selling you up the creek.
Some of the ways you’ll need to manage up with your unskilled manager include:
From the get-go, you’ll need to help your non-technical manager understand the components of your work and some of the nuances that wouldn’t be immediately obvious. For example, you can help them understand the nomenclature and jargon people throw around (don’t forget the acronyms). It’s also helpful to walk them through past projects or upcoming roadmaps with an insider’s view of what they’ll need to pay attention to (and what they can ignore).
When your hot shot new boss comes in, they’ll likely want to use your excellent work to enhance their reputation. You can help manage those ambitions to ensure they under-promise so you can over-deliver. Establish a rapport where you can be candid with them about what’s reasonable, what’s a stretch or a moon shot, and what’s a safe bet. But don’t sandbag expectations, or you’ll lose their respect and your opportunity to manage up.
Your non-technical boss doesn’t know what’s impossible, so you will have to help them land on the plans that give your team the best shot at success. Avoid saying “no” to a misguided strategy, but do manage up by sharing examples of what has or hasn’t worked in the past and asking questions to gently guide their attention in a different direction. For example, “If your goal is to increase our speed to ship new software, what do you think of shifting to an Agile development method? Would you like me to take you through what that might look like?”
Managing Up When You Have a Micro-Manager
While I empathize with new and non-technical managers, who are out of their element, I have much less tolerance for micro-managers. When you’ve got a manager that’s a foot deeper in the weeds than you are, managing up is essential to get them out of the way so you can get something done.
Some of the ways you’ll need to manage up with your micro-manager include:
More Important Questions
Micro-managers are infuriating because they tend to present themselves as overworked martyrs, but all their effort is on the things you could do without them while they neglect the things only they can do. Argh. Manage your micro-manager by directing a steady stream of more important questions their way. “I’ll finish the draft, so you don’t have to spend time on that. Where I’d really appreciate your thoughts is how we should approach the review process.”
Some micro-managers are just hypervigilant because they’re nervous you won’t deliver and that they’ll look bad as a result. Keep your micro-manager up-to-date on your work, so they never need to come to you to be in the loop. If you marry the first and second suggestions, your update format can include everything you’ve got in hand and a “more important question” that you would love their help with.
There’s another version of a micro-manager; a person who doesn’t want to be a manager. It’s a person who loves doing the work and is unfulfilled by their more hands-off role. It’s the marketing manager who wishes they were still doing creative or the engineering partner who misses drawing up a design. In that case, one way to manage them is to teach them how to be a good mentor. Ask them what you should be thinking about as you do the work. Get them to regale you with stories of their past glory.
So there you have three common reasons you might need to manage up. You’re saddled with a newbie, your boss is a leader but not a doer, or you’re being micromanaged within an inch of your life. I haven’t even mentioned non-strategic, out-of-the-loop, paranoid, indecisive, or flip-flopping managers. Still, hopefully, based on these three, you can tailor your own managing up techniques to the particular brand of inadequate boss you’ve got.
There are many reasons why you need to manage your boss and different approaches to draw on depending on the cause of their shortcomings. If you go in with the attitude that you want to help your boss be the manager you need, managing up will yield good results.