Managing up is something all managers need to master

Written by: Officevibe team | Edited by: Erika Khanna | Illustrated by: Officevibe team
Published on February 3, 2021 |  Reading time: 7m

In a perfect work environment, you would have a great manager, a clearly defined role and expectations. But Gallup says that companies fail to hire or promote managers with the right talent for the job 82% of the time. So what can you do if you have a difficult manager who makes it hard for you and your team to get the job done?

That’s when it’s time to learn the leadership skill of managing up. Managing up is the art of learning how to work better with the manager you have, no matter their skill level, work style or personality type.

As a manager, you serve as an intermediary, so you need to protect your team by having tough conversations. If you learn to manage up, you will find more success and happiness in your job, and the employees on your team will be better off, too.

What does it mean to manage up?

Managing up is learning to balance the “manager in the middle” role you have between your team and your own boss. McKinsey found that actions relating to managing up were about 50% more important than managing subordinates for business success. 

It might be tough to balance performing in your role, and pleasing your manager: a signature sign of a job well done. Doing this requires you to develop the management skill of communicating your needs to your leader. 

In her book, Managing Up, Rosanne Badowski describes the fundamentals for managing up successfully:

  1. Manage expectations: A difficult manager can surface unrealistic expectations. To help this, set expectations. Define your team’s objectives and projects and be clear about how much time employees need to complete their job properly.
  2. Coordinate communications: Don’t let a “failure to communicate” be the downfall of your team’s success. Keep your manager in the loop about what your team is doing, and update your team on management expectations. Clear communications rely on cohesive goals and responsibilities for team alignment.
  3. Criticize constructively: Many people are uncomfortable offering feedback to their managers, but it’s how you’ll build a strong working relationship. If you aren’t clear about what you need, you likely won’t achieve your desired outcome. 
  4. Mediate disagreements: There may come a time when there is a disagreement between your manager and your team. Whether they don’t agree with a new direction or understand where decisions are coming from, it’s up to you as their team leader to ensure everyone gets on the same page.

When you have a pre-existing space to give your manager feedback, it’s easier to get the conversation started.

Officevibe is designed to assist employees and managers alike. When it comes to upward feedback, we help you ask employees specific questions. Choose to respond anonymously, at your discretion. Our anonymous feedback feature helps initiate difficult conversations. 

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Make your managing up efforts work

Gallup reveals that 50% of employees leave their companies because of their boss. Instead of leaving and looking for another position, know that you can work through difficult conversations with your direct manager. Here’s how to manage up and improve your relationship with your manager.

Be prepared

Sort out what you want to say to your manager. Write it down or rehearse it with someone you trust. Make sure your points are clear and concise. Watch for an accusatory tone, and keep the conversation about the facts.

💡 Tip: Officevibe offers shared 1-on-1 agendas where you can add talking points ahead of time. It allows both parties to contribute, so you can both come prepared.

Be specific

Talk about specific behaviours, tasks, and action items. Use measurable input from your team to point out areas that are unclear.

Focus on solutions

Instead of listing out everything that is not working, focus on possible solutions. Use phrases like: “How do you think my team can move forward to meet our goals?” or “Is there another approach that will help?”

Remember, timing is everything

Part of your job is being able to “read” your manager. This is a vital skill in determining your success. Select a discussion time where they are not in a rush to meet their own deadlines.

Look ahead

Being solution oriented means learning on the past to focus on the present and the future. Explain what worked or didn’t work in the past and how you’d like to make things better.

Avoid the following when managing up:

Don’t overstep

Be mindful to let your leader speak without interruptions. Prevent a confrontation by clearly hearing each other out.

Don’t be a “yes” person

Take time to process your manager’s requests, and be sure to check in with your team before agreeing to new initiatives. The more you learn to vet requests and even say no, the more your manager will understand boundaries

Don’t aim to please

Remember that your goal is to protect your team and help them perform. Don’t be afraid to have the tough conversations that will enable that. At the end of the day, your boss wants your team to succeed too.

💡Tip: When conversations get heated, remind your boss that you have the same end goal and that ultimately you are working towards the same result.

Don’t keep your manager in the dark

Keep in mind that there will be issues, concerns and learnings in any role. Your leader is there to guide to help find solutions.

3 common scenarios for managing up

Let’s put your learnings into action! Here are common scenarios where you might need to manage, and tips for how to get it right. 

Scenario 1:  Disagreeing with changes

Your manager implements changes that your team doesn’t think will improve the subject at hand. However, you’re the middle manager, and you need to mediate between your manager’s request and your team’s response.

How to manage up in this scenario: 

  • Ask for specifics: Request more details on the anticipated positive impacts your manager anticipates. If it’s “just an idea” let them know that you need their ideas to be backed up with a credible hypothesis.
  • Bring in the experts: Encourage team members review your manager’s detailed request. Let them share their insights as to why or why not the changes should be made.
  • Prioritize based on facts, not hunches: Weigh both sides of the coin with clear hypotheses from both ends, and decide whether to prioritize it or not. 

Scenario 2: Lack of clarity

You’ve discovered that your team does lacks clarity when it comes to key stakeholders and business goals. This has come through from Officevibe’s anonymous Pulse Surveys. You want to bring this data to your manager.

Officevibe metrics show clear data so that you can manage up!

How to manage up in this scenario

  • Don’t point fingers or accuse: Remain productive. Try addressing this with “I have uncovered areas of concern. I would like us to work together to develop solutions.”
  • Share your team’s feedback: Be the voice between your team and your manager.
  • Work together: Offer to help establish clear, written goals that eliminate confusion and assure the success of your team.
  • Ensure alignment: It’s one thing to talk about about objectives, it’s another to act on them. Ask your manager to present objectives, and the “why” behind the numbers. Then motivate your team to ask questions.

Scenario 3: Juggling between two teams

Your two teams are at odds over how best to approach an important project. This is a great opportunity to manage up, let your leader know that you care about the outcome and the psychological safety of both teams.

How to manage up in this scenario

  • Communicate in a neutral perspective: Find a time and place away from the everyday rush of the office where the two of you can calmly communicate as equals.
  • Frame the problem succinctly: List out the responsibilities your team has been given. Then, list your concerns about any potential overlap. Show how both teams might be working at odds with one another.
  • Offer solutions: Suggest ways the teams might be able to improve their communication with each other.
  • Ensure agreement: Make sure you both agree on a plan to move forward, and communicate the plan to your separate teams. Keep in contact with each other to discuss progress and ensure a better understanding of the project as it proceeds.

Managing up benefits you and your team

Managing up is about emotional intelligence in dealing with people, and recognizing that your boss is a person. It is just one of the tools you can put in your managerial tool kit that will make you a great manager. As you involve your manager in helping you become better at your job, you’ll also learn to tackle your daily management challenges, build trust, strengthen work relationships and guide your team to success.