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CONFLICT RESOLUTION: Managing Up: How To Manage Your Manager

What do we mean by managing up?  We might define it as a conscious, deliberate effort to build a strong relationship of understanding and cooperation between ourselves and our bosses.  Let’s explore some ideas about how we might approach this idea of managing up.  And, if you’re feeling that it’s too late to improve your relationship with your boss, read on to see if there is some nugget that will help you get back on track.

First, we have to see the world of work as our boss sees it. Is his/her world filled with high pressure global players with various difficult personalities?  Or, is the boss’ time spent managing budgets, explaining missed deliverables, and negotiating with upset customers? Are there pressures that are very different from our own?  Who are the key players in his/her world and what do the interactions look like?  Take a moment and list the critical challenges your boss faces every day.

giant-boss-manage-your-bossMost likely, your boss has a vision for the department or division and how it will achieve and be perceived by others – within and outside the organization.  Listen for and align yourself with that vision.  Also listen for the “winds of change” that your boss is seeing early on.  Add your own insights into these changes, based on your reading and internet explorations.  Add value to operational and strategic discussions, as well as at a tactical level. (Needing some more insight? Read: 8 Steps To Becoming Value-Added In Your Organization)

Think about your boss’ personality. Every personality has strengths, but we’re not going to focus there.  Instead, think about the more vulnerable side of his/her personality.  Is your boss what I often call “a closet feeler” – someone who really longs for relationships, but now is at a level in the organization where feelings are more suppressed?  Maybe the individual desires recognition and acceptance, but now plays in an arena where everyone else has the same need.  Or it could be that the person just wants things to get done on time, or done right? Finding the hidden need is a critical aspect of building the relationship, because that is your way of saying, “I get you.”

If you’re confused about what is at the “heart” of your boss’ need, listen to what the boss says in the offhand conversations at the end of the day.  Is it something like, “This is not going to look good for us?”  “You think I might have at least gotten a thank you.”  “When will somebody just get it to me on time?”  The message is in what he/she emphasizes. (Needing some more insight? Read: The 4 “Gets” of Personality)

Now, think of how to meet that need in very real, tangible ways. If your boss is really a people person who has just had to fire someone, mention how you know that must have been particularly difficult – even though it was the right decision.  If the boss is a stickler for grammar and spelling, make sure that your work has no mistakes.  And if he or she is someone who longs for recognition but never gets it, do some reverse recognizing and comment on how well he or she did with a presentation or during a meeting. (Needing some more insight? Read: MBTI – In The Grip)

It’s also beneficial to look at the boss’ work style and communication preferences. Maybe your boss is more introverted and prefers to receive emails rather than visits.  Is he the type of person who takes in information through reading and digesting before talking about it?   Or maybe it’s vice versa, and your boss wants to hear information, followed by a written summary.  Some just like an informal approach – the “drop by” conversation – as their preferred form of communication.  See the preference and “flex” yourself to it.   Also look at work space preferences – neat or messy – to gain insight into his/her likes and dislikes. (Needing some more insight? Read: The Art of Listening)

Bosses do not like surprises and providing the important “heads up” is critical to your relationship. If a deadline is going to be missed, don’t hide the information hoping it will get better.  Instead, take the lead and provide early notice that a problem is looming.  And when you share the problem, stand out by bringing a proposed solution with it, showing that you have given the problem some thought.  Timing is critical here as well.  No “hit and runs” are allowed.  No boss wants to be stopped in the hall on the way to a difficult meeting to be informed that a project deadline is likely to be missed.  Be very careful that you don’t get a reputation for being negative or demanding.

Think of ways to make it easy to do business with you. Being the poster child for “problem employee of the month” is not the way to win over your boss.  If you don’t know what your boss’ expectations are, take the lead and initiate discussion to clarify them.  Also, know your boss’ pet peeves:  sloppy work, too much glancing at the cell phone, swearing, late to meetings, moodiness.  Sometimes it’s the little things that spoil the relationship. (Needing some more insight? Read: The Belief: Behavior Connection)

Be conscious of how you talk about your boss to others, recognizing that what goes around, comes around. If you have concerns, go to her first rather than “triangling” with others.  If something is of grave concern, carefully discuss it with a mentor or another individual who will maintain your information confidentially until you decide what to do.

Managing up is not brownnosing or sucking up.  It truly is about focusing on understanding the boss better and then approaching the relationship with an attitude of cooperation.  Managing that asset will be critical to your future success.


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  • Great post!

    Thank you!

  • Mark,

    Great post. But have a question. Is it not the managers job to manage you. Make himself redundant and bring you up the learning curve. If we keep on managing the boss, would’nt the time thus invested be better utilized to learn your bosses skillsets …

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