Managing Up

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Wed Jan 18 2023By Tommy Lobato

Recently a business associate and I were having lunch.  He told me that while I was good at managing down, I was not so good managing up.  As I thought about it, I had to agree with him.  I have always been focused on my team and being that buffer between them and the next level up.  A few years back I took a personality test as part of applying for a particular position.  Afterwards, they shared a copy of the results with me.  I must say, some of things in that report were so true it was almost scary.  I will share one bullet with you: “Mr. Lobato can be difficult to manage at times.”  They hit that nail on the head. 

In my defense, I have always refused to be a “yes man” and I had become accustomed to pushing back.  Couple that with my personality (the way I come across) and I could relate with the results of the test.  Together, I had a test that I completed and feedback from an associate that I respect, telling me the same thing basically.  Knowing this, I began to focus on being easier to get along with and more collaborative with my peers.  Not that I had not done this in the past, but there was still room for improvement.

Kelsey Miller defined managing up in her blog on Northeastern University as, “…the process of an employee taking steps to improve their boss’s efficiency and efficacy.”1   April Greene, summarizes it as, “…managing up is a method of career development that is based on consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss.” 2  There are many definitions out there but I would estimate that most have one underlying concept in common: building the relationship between you and your boss.  Managing up is not about buttering up to him/her or trying to manipulate them.  

Whether we know it or not, most of us are managing up to some degree.  How effective we are is a different matter.  Here are a few bullet points on how we can better manage up and improve this relationship.

Communicate - Keep your boss updated on your projects, events, and readiness. Watch your tone in conversations and emails!

Focus – Look at the bigger picture and identify those tasks, events, work, or other things that are a priority.  If you are unsure, discuss it with your boss and come to a consensus on those things.  

Reliability - Meet your deadlines, and if you cannot, let him or her know ahead of time.  No one likes these kinds of surprises.  Note, we all need people that we can rely upon, and your boss is no different.  

Trust - Meeting the first three items should help build your boss’s trust in you.  Other things to consider are owning up to mistakes.  Be visible. Be engaged.  

Feedback – Here are two questions you can ask when looking for feedback.  What is it that makes me effective? And, what can I do to make myself more effective?  Listen and be prepared to take the feedback.  Most of the time, I have a good idea of what the second answer might entail.  

There are many, many reasons why we should learn to manage up. First and foremost, to protect our livelihood.  After all, who likes to deal with employees who are difficult to work with, have a bad attitude, or do not like to share information?  I am sure my boss does not feel any different about working with someone with these behaviors.  

Second, I believe it can make our job easier.  The benefits of managing up can gain us a rapport that instills trust in our leadership.  Doing the right thing can lead to assistance with difficult tasks, new opportunities for growth, or even the proverbial “get out of jail free” card.  On the other hand, we should not expect much if we have a reputation of being disengaged., 

While I have discussed managing up primarily in the sense of our bosses, it is also applicable to other leaders in the organization as well our peers.  One of my former bosses once told me that as I get higher on the ladder, the more it becomes about relationships.  That is not to be dismissive of skills, but rather to place the importance on that kindergarten skill of working well with others.  

  1. Managing Up: How To Lead When You’re Not The Boss; Kelsey Miller, June 18, 2019;
  2. The Dos And Don’ts Of Managing Up; April Greene, April 6, 2021

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