How to Manage Up Well


Get Shift Done: Management

We all have a boss. Even CEOs report to someone — a board of directors, investors, customers. But, as ubiquitous as reporting to someone is, there is very little instruction given on managing UP. And yet it’s a skill that is crucial to your success, and the success of your entire team.

So how do you effectively manage your manager? Here are my 5 rules for managing up.

Rule #5: Concise and Scan-able Communication

While you may appreciate the detail your employee puts into their communication, you probably don’t have the time to take it all in. And you know you don’t need to know all of it to get on with your day.

Well, guess what? Your boss is really busy, too. And if you send them the business version of T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland, it’s unlikely they will read it all. In fact, they may just bypass the email all together, with the intention of reading it at a later point. A point that never comes.

Keep communications clear and concise when sending a message up the chain. The hard part is making sure to strike a balance between everything they need to know, and nothing they don’t. Just make sure to cover the important points and give them enough information to answer their bosses questions. If they need, or even want to know more, they’ll ask.

Rule #4: Disagree

Did I really just tell you to argue with your boss? Well, no, I didn’t. But you should disagree with the, not all the time, but once in a while.

While this may seem more like a personal growth strategy — showing your boss you can think for yourself, you’re not a “yes (wo)man” — there is value for your boss when you disagree, too.

First, they get information that they may not already have. When you dissent, and layout your reasons for doing so, they get to see a side of a topic they wouldn’t have if everyone around them simply nods. This helps them make better decisions.

Second, it might make them look better in front of their boss. If their boss disagrees with them, they’ll have already gone through the thought exercise with you of defending their position. As a result, they will look smart in front of the person they report to. And they will have you to thank.

Rule #3: Ask… and tell

Want to know the quickest way to make your boss happy? Ask them what they need.

In Rule #5, we talked about giving them the information that they need, and no more. But how are you going to know what that is if you don’t ask? Try a few of these questions:

  • What information do you need? Is there more that you’d like to see?
  • Is there something you’d like to see in this report that I’m not including?
  • How often do you want updates from me?
  • Am I over/under communicating?

The flip side of this is telling. Think about your personal relationships for a second. When someone makes you guess what they need, it gets pretty infuriating. It’s the same in a professional relationship.

If you need something, let your manager know. Everything from what you want to do to advance your career to what will make your team happy should be on the table to talk about.

And this includes workload. Your boss is busy managing their own projects and responsibilities. They aren’t keeping a close eye on everything you’re doing — nor should they be.

But that means they may be oblivious to when you’re overloaded. Unless you say something. When you have too much to do, you don’t do a good job on anything. When you don’t do a good job, that reflects badly on your boss. It’s as much for their benefit as for yours to keep you from being overburdened.

Rule #2: Remember, they are human, too

This is frequently a tough one, but oh-so-important. Your manager, and their manager, and up the chain to the CEO? They’re all humans, just like you and me. They may have more expertise than you. They may have more knowledge than you. But at the end of the day, they’re just people.

That means they get frustrated, they get overwhelmed, they forget things. It means they have ambitions, they want to do things in their career, they want to be appreciated.

So when your boss forgets that you sent that file, don’t get upset because “She makes the big bucks.” Re-send the file and move on.

If they’re driving you to perfect a presentation, remember that your work reflects on them, too. They want their team, as well as themselves, to look good. So be sympathetic and ask for guidance instead of getting angry.

If they blow their top, it’s probably not personal. In fact, it might not even have anything to do with you. Maybe their kid is sick. Maybe their boss just yelled at them. As long as it isn’t chronic, deal with them like you would anyone else having a bad day.

Rule #1: No Surprises

This is the biggest and most important rule of managing up. Your boss should never be surprised by something your team is doing. And they should never, ever be surprised by issues your team is having.

A cornerstone of no surprises is proactive communication. Tell them there’s a problem before it’s a fire. Tell them about an issue before their boss asks them about it.

I dealt once with a system outage. I walked into my boss’s office while the problem was still going on and briefed him on it. He hadn’t asked, and we weren’t done fixing it. But I didn’t wait.

Five minutes after I finished filling him in, the CEO walked in and asked about the problem we’d just talked about. My boss looked like a rock star because he was able to answer questions on the spot.

Proactive communication extends to projects and deadlines, too. Including when a deadline is going to be missed.

Especially if a deadline is going to be missed.

Remember, telling your boss there is a problem before something is due is a reason, and one you can work on to fix together. Telling them there is a problem after something is due? That’s just an excuse.

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