At a glance
“Managing up” is emerging as a crucial leadership skill, because it helps individuals to establish a rapport with colleagues who are more senior in rank. It can also create a happier, more cohesive work environment.
Managing up requires a high degree of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. When it is done well, the person who is managing up shows how they can take charge, be an excellent team player and use initiative – all without appearing insubordinate.
What is managing up?
Kathryn MacMillan, managing director of CIRCLE Recruitment and HR, says, “Managing up is the art of ‘managing’ anybody who is above you in the organisation.
“The concept has been around for a long time, but hasn’t been labelled until recently.”
In the past, MacMillan says, managing up would have been frowned upon in most organisations. The prevailing view 50 years ago was that a junior staffer did whatever a more senior staffer told them to do. More recently, the rise of “knowledge workers” – whose main capital is, unsurprisingly, knowledge – has led to a subtle power shift.
“The dynamics have shifted from essentially a ‘master-servant’ relationship to being on more of an equal footing,” says MacMillan.
“Employees are a valuable commodity, and they are more conscious of the fact that they can get better results if they manage upwards.”
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Forget the negative connotations
There is a widespread misperception that “managing your manager” involves a degree of manipulation that ultimately undermines authority. Some also assume that only an overly demanding and unreasonable boss requires managing up.
Career coach Jane Jackson says that managing up is not about trying to influence a situation at work for self-serving reasons or to lessen the impact of an incompetent boss. Quite the reverse is true – it is about consciously modifying your own style of working to accommodate someone else.
“People tend to think that managing up is about playing politics,” says Jackson, who is also the author of Navigating Career Crossroads and founder of the Career Success Program.
“But there’s negative politics, and there’s positive politics. Positive politics involves developing good relationships with the people you work with, and with senior management. Managing up isn’t about being a sycophant. It is about developing solid relationships and letting people know you are solutions-focused.”
Make a strong start
Effective communication is at the heart of managing up. Most people have a preferred style of communicating. Being attuned to your manager’s preferences and adapting your style to mirror theirs can enhance the relationship.
It could be as simple as asking your manager how they prefer to communicate on a day-to‑day basis – is an email best, a meeting request, or a knock on the door? The best time to do this is right at the start of a new relationship.
“When you are working out the lay of the land and discovering how the department works, this is the best time to ask all the questions you need,” says Jackson. “This works best in the first 90 days in the job. After settling into your role, the opportunity to ask those perceived ‘dumb’ questions may not be so easy.”
Tips for the first 100 days in a new job
Adapt to your manager's style
In both new and established relationships, with a bit of observation it should soon become clear how a manager is most amenable to receiving information from their team.
“Some bosses want communication that is quick and efficient,” adds MacMillan. “They will get frustrated by someone who waffles. If I knew my boss was like that, I would get straight to the point.”
Others may need as many facts and details as possible, while some may prefer that social collaboration trumps everything else. This latter personality type prefers to brainstorm and flesh out ideas together. As Jackson highlights, a boss who is a “feeler” in their communication style will respond well to an idea that is presented with the human dimension front and centre.
Easy does it
When in doubt, opt for a gentler approach, suggests MacMillan. Always try to avoid seeming as though you are trying to railroad someone more senior into making a certain decision.
“If you have been asked to deliver ‘X’ but you give them ‘Y’ without any communication, it is going to lead to problems,” says MacMillan. “But if you have a collaborative approach and make gentle suggestions to the benefit of the organisation or project, it is going to work much better.”
In MacMillan’s years in human resources, she has observed that most interpersonal difficulties in the workplace arise as the result of miscommunication. Equally, an ability to communicate with skill and sensitivity will almost always produce winning results.
“Communication is the crux of success in any career or business,” agrees Jackson. “Clear communication, open questions and a genuine interest in the function of your role and how it fits into the whole are essential. Ask questions, listen and be respectful.”