Managing up — a.k.a. working proactively and strategically to assist your boss and keep him or her apprised of your great work — can solve a variety of workplace dilemmas. I’ve covered how managing up can be hugely beneficial when your boss is absent, when you’re overwhelmed, and when you’re hoping for more responsibility.
There are times when managing up is a workplace survival skill, such as when you have a horrible, terrible, no good, very bad boss. If this is the case, you’ll want to read this phenomenal article by Jen Dziura which explains how to take the lead and “stay sane” no matter how difficult your boss may be.
Hopefully, your supervisor isn’t quite so bad; but your relationship with your boss will still affect how you manage up. Why? Because your boss’ response to your newfound penchant for initiative and communication can help you gauge if you’re managing up too little or too frequently.
If you fail to bring new ideas and initiatives to your boss (no matter if it’s out of deference), you might look like you’re coasting, or worse, in over your head — definitely not promotion-material. Alternatively, if you go overboard (e.g., scheduling meetings with your boss all the time, or telling him your game-plan as a fact rather than potential first steps), your extra efforts can become a hindrance, rather than a stepping-stone, to success.
The key is learning to manage up just the right amount.
If your boss responds positively
It’s possible that your boss has already been providing opportunities for you to manage up. For example, does he encourage you to lead your check-in meetings? Does he ask how you would approach a situation before giving his own opinion? These are both opportunities to manage up by taking a leadership role in the discussion of your work, and these cues suggest that you have a boss who’s very supportive of managing up (and of you!).
Your first step is to assess areas where you think your working relationship (or workload) could be improved. Would switching from weekly to bi-weekly check-ins (or vice-versa) allow you to be more productive? Do you have a dilemma, and a corresponding plan for action?
Next, prioritize your list and group items into big changes and small changes. No matter how receptive your boss is, asking to change the frequency, duration, tone and medium of your check-ins all at once is extreme — as is universally shifting how you pitch projects from asking for guidance to telling your boss that you’ve already decided how you’ll be handling all situations moving forward.
Increase how frequently you manage up by taking a “one big change, one small change” approach. Maybe you ask for one additional slot on your supervisor’s calendar to discuss some changes to one project — but let additional innovations wait for another time.
If your boss buries new ideas
Let’s say you’re trying the “one big change, one small change” approach so you know that you’re not overdoing it, but your boss never seems receptive. Anytime you suggest an additional check-in or new idea he shuts you down — often on the spot.
In this case, your supervisor is trying to disincentivize your shift toward taking an active role in managing your own workload. She prefers a classic supervisor-employee relationship in which she assigns and you execute. Instead of seeing the benefits of your newfound ownership over your work, she may feel threatened.
In this instance, you’ll want to reimagine the classic approach of framing “managing up” as leadership and initiative. Instead of introducing new ideas as your independent innovations, pitch them as building on something your boss has already suggested. As Margie Warrell writes in How To Handle A Bad Boss: 7 Strategies For ‘Managing Up’:
“The secret is to “manage up” without them ever realizing you are doing it.”
For example, if you have an idea for taking a project in a new direction, instead of leading with your potential approach, ask you supervisor for his suggestions. Then, say, “I hear you suggesting [reframe his point]. That gives me an idea…”
While you’ll appear to have stepped back from managing up, you’ll still be actively improving communication with your boss, as well as guiding your work (which are the two key pieces of strategy). This approach — while, yes, a bit covert — still allows you to gain the benefits of managing up, but in a way that your boss will likely be more receptive to (and which will also provide you with additional communication skills).
Managing up is a strategy to empower you to share the realities of your workload with your supervisor. You’ll know that you’re doing it right — and the right amount — if you notice increased, more effective communication with your boss and feel ownership over your work.