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What Is “Managing Up”?

Thursday, May 16, 2019
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“Managing up” has become a trendy buzz-phrase at all levels of the corporate ecosystem. We all understand the concept of traditional top-down management, but what exactly is managing up?

While there are few certainties in the field of management and leadership, one truth I’ve found over decades of experience is that all managers are not strong, effective leaders; in fact, most have significant flaws. What does that look like in the workplace? Well, they don’t always make the best decisions. They miss things. Sometimes they’re the barrier to success on a project. Managers typically aren’t closest to the day-to-day work, so they don’t always understand the details or have the best information. They also frequently don’t know what people are really thinking or how team members really feel about a particular process, issue, or task. Like anyone else, they also sometimes don’t know what they don’t know (unconscious incompetence), so they can have huge blind spots.

While this laundry list of flaws might sound somewhat scary, it also sounds pretty normal—because managers are, after all, human, right? Yes; but unfortunately, we’re conditioned to treat them like they’re all-knowing and all-powerful superheroes with perfect decision making skills. While managers often possess certain strengths and advantages that enable them to make sound decisions, they also often possess certain disadvantages or weaknesses due either to their own personal failings or to inherent disadvantages in holding a higher-level position.

Sometimes leaders are handicapped by their “ivory tower” position. They might not be as close to the customer or have their ear to the ground in terms of what staff really think or which processes are truly broken. Guess what? They also may not be perfect. They may have their own weaknesses or shortfalls and be so swamped with broader responsibilities that they may not have the bandwidth to pore over details before every decision. As such, the truth is that for teams to operate at maximum performance levels, it’s not just important for managers to manage (down), but it’s also important for staff to continuously manage up!

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My personal definition of managing up is “a subordinate customizing their work style/behaviors to better suit their manager, taking steps to make their manager’s job easier, and/or proactively striving to optimize success for all.” Put another way, managing up is taking things off your boss’s plate and helping them be more effective!

What Does Managing Up Look Like?

The employee who actively manages up is one who often:

  • Anticipates problems and actively works to prevent them.
  • Adjusts their style and approach to better fit their manager’s preferences.
  • Is particularly flexible and willing to take on the projects no one wants.
  • Speaks truth to power when necessary (willing to tell the boss the ugly truth when others won’t).

If you’re thinking that’s a tall order, it is! Managing up isn’t easy—and that’s precisely why it is so important and so effective. Most employees don’t take the time to actively manage up, so the ones who do truly stand out from the crowd. So how do you begin?

Best Practices for Managing Up

  • Always propose a solution or two when asking your boss for help with a problem.
  • Look for opportunities to “take things off their plate”—simple acts like volunteering to schedule meeting invites, book meeting rooms, develop presentation templates, conduct vendor research, and so forth can produce huge time savings for your boss (and make you an invaluable resource in the process).
  • Adjust your communication style to fit their preferences (for example, if they prefer face-to-face, try to stop by their office to discuss issues rather than just sending an email).
  • Get in the habit of brainstorming and analyzing potential risks for new projects and proactively sharing the risk analysis (including recommended mitigation strategies and backup plans) with senior leadership.
  • Share good news soon and bad news sooner.
  • Look for opportunities to propose process changes or new innovations and volunteer to help lead the resultant work (as appropriate).

Want to learn more? Join me at the ATD International Conference & Exposition for the session, The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Surviving the “Difficult Boss” (and Thriving).

About the Author

After years of working as a business strategy consultant with top IT firms, in 2003 Dana Brownlee founded Professionalism Matters an Atlanta based corporate training company. An energetic and innovative speaker and trainer, Dana has thrilled audiences with speaking events across the United States and globally.

Rated as the #1 Leadership Influencer on Projectmanagement.com, her business expertise has been featured by CNN, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Redbook, Working Mother, Forbes.com, and other notable publications. Her first book The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches was published by Berrett-Koehler in February 2019.

A nationally recognized speaker, Dana speaks to groups large and small on a variety of topics including tips for rescuing your meetings, dealing with the difficult boss, secrets of the "Thoroughbred Leader," and discovering the keys to true work life balance.

1 Comment
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Wow, this is something completely new to me. Managing Up is truly necessary. Yet to execute this practically, they need a communication channel and trust me, peopleHum is the best that there is. Check it out www.peoplehum.com.
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