Want to get better at managing up? These 4 tips can help  

Man and a woman working together in an office.
Managing up can help shape your work outcomes and increase your chances of success.
Image: Unsplash/Kenny Eliason
  • Managing up – working with your manager or team leader to improve your working relationship – is a powerful skill to develop.
  • Doing this well leads to fewer misunderstandings, less micromanaging, and helps invests your team leader in your professional development.
  • Banks Benitezis, founder of Smart Workweek, offers a useful framework for helping you to develop the skill of managing up.

I wasn’t taught how to manage up — the process of working with your leader to streamline your working relationship and the work itself. For a long time, I just accepted that because a leader was in a place of power, I had to do whatever they told me. I didn’t believe it was my place to help shape how my leader led me. After all, they had more experience and often more time at the company. Who was I to manage up?

But over the years of being led and being a leader, I’ve learned that the best working relationships are an active collaboration between leader and direct report where both invest in the relationship and continually shape it.

Why manage up?

If you’re interested in developing into a leader at your organization or simply improving your working dynamics with your existing leader, then managing up is a valuable skill to develop. Here are three ways managing up can make a difference:

Working relationships: When you manage up well, you’re creating a positive working relationship with your leader and coworkers defined by honesty and dialogue. This can lead to fewer misunderstandings, less micromanaging, and a working relationship where your leader is well-equipped to invest in your professional development. Mary Abbajay, the author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, says, “If we reframe followership from a power construct into a relational construct, we open up a wide world of choice and agency. In a relationship, everybody has agency.”

Work outcomes: Managing up creates the opportunity to shape your work outcomes and timelines and increase your chances of success. Directives from leadership are often miss important context that can influence the success of a project, and that context can come from you.

Psychological safety: When you manage up well, you send a message to yourself about the importance of your voice, your needs, and what’s possible. This creates psychological safety, defined by researcher Amy Edmondson as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” And when Google looked at their own teams, they found psychological safety was the most important indicator of team effectiveness.

A framework for managing up

If you want to improve how you manage up, consider the following framework:

Clarify success metrics and evaluation. Often leaders struggle to clearly define success or communicate how your performance will be evaluated. To help you and your leader develop new habits, spend more time clarifying and aligning around your priorities, performance metrics, and how you’ll be evaluated. Are the metrics you’re being held accountable to clear and measurable? Are there things that are confusing or still undefined? Asking simple clarifying questions or requesting further definition will help you and your leader be aligned from the beginning. Prioritize other projects: Often, leaders are unaware of how new tasks and projects influence existing work already underway. By viewing new work in the context of existing work, you are helping your leader understand trade-offs. When my employees asked for help in prioritizing tasks and projects, it forced me to rank our work and provide sponsorship to adjust expectations, timelines, and resources.

Consider asking the following questions at the beginning of a new project:

  • What is the deadline you need this done by?
  • Given that deadline and my workload, I might have to deprioritize this other work.
  • Are we aligned on the top priorities I should focus on?

By viewing new work in the context of existing work, you are helping your leader understand trade-offs. When my employees asked for help in prioritizing tasks and projects it forced me to rank our work and provide sponsorship to adjust expectations, timelines, and resources.

Proactively seek feedback: When you proactively seek feedback at the end of a project or after an important milestone, you’re creating an opportunity to fine-tune your working relationship with your leader. Seeking feedback allows you to gather valuable input, engage in dialogue with your leader, and identify ways to make changes in your approach early and often.

Advocate for yourself: As a leader, I try to keep the career and development goals of my employees in mind, but if we haven’t spoken about them in a few months, they are easy to forget. I appreciate each time my employees remind me of their growth goals and share an idea or opportunity that will move them forward.

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