Managing Up

Management is a two-way street. Improve your working relationships with these tips.
By Kierra Trotter


Read time: 3 minutes

“People quit bosses, not jobs.” Whether or not you’ve experienced this adage first-hand, there’s no doubt that the relationship an employee has with their supervisor significantly impacts their overall work experience. There’s no shortage of research and advice directed at managers but, as with any relationship, management can and should be a two-way street.

“Managing up” is a strategy that empowers employees to intentionally develop a mutually beneficial, healthy relationship with their manager. According to workplace expert Lindsey Pollak, managing up is getting what you want from your career by “learn[ing] how to work for, and adapt to, each person you report to.”

Tips for managing up: 

  • Understand your boss’s priorities and how your job aligns with them.

  • Give useful, timely feedback in your manager’s preferred communication style.

  • Intentionally contribute to a healthy working relationship.

Managing up is not: 

  • Doing your boss’s job for them.
  • Bypassing or manipulating your supervisor.
  • Excessive flattery or agreeing with everything your boss says and does.
  • Accepting a toxic working relationship.

Here are three things you can do to start managing up today:

Understand your manager’s job and their priorities. 

Getting to know your boss and the demands of their job will help you empathize with them and position you to contribute to your and your team’s success.

When learning about your boss and what’s important to them, answer these questions: What are their basic responsibilities? Who do they report to and what is that relationship like? What metrics are they held accountable for? How do they define success for themselves? Which pain points are causing them the most stress?

Have the ‘style conversation.’

In his career book, “The First 90 Days,” author Michael Watkins defines the “style conversation” as one that will help you and your boss determine how best to interact with each other. The style conversation is all about establishing effective communication — the foundation of any healthy relationship.

Your communication style likely differs from your manager’s, so approach the style conversation with the intent to learn how to communicate in a way that will allow you to get what you need from your manager.

Pair active listening with direct conversations with your supervisor to answer the following questions, and be prepared to answer these questions for yourself: What are your boss’s preferred communication channels (meetings, email, phone, unscheduled pop-up conversations)? Do their preferences change depending on the subject matter? How and when do they want you to share constructive feedback and praise? Do they expect you to share details of what you’re working on or do they prefer to be notified only about major progress or changes? What are their pet peeves? How much context do they need when being asked to weigh in on a decision?

Be solution-oriented.

Replacing problems and complaints with ideas and solutions can help you and your manager streamline problem-solving. Becoming more solution-oriented can be boiled down to three steps: grasping the problem or situation; seeking to understand the situation from multiple points of view; and devising answers that benefit as many perspectives as possible.

You will inevitably face problems that require insights or action that only your manager can provide. In these instances, speak up and be explicit about what you need from your manager and on what timeline.

Those who are skilled at managing up are more effective in their job overall, and when paired with the support of a talented manager, employees who manage up are more likely to be engaged at work. Managing up can improve your working relationship and encourage your manager to invest in you, advocate for you, and have confidence in your abilities.

Kierra Trotter is the director of alumni career and education at the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan. 

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