Managing up can sound daunting, like an act of master manipulation, or telepathy. In reality, it’s just good relationship management.
In this article, I discuss the three areas in which public servants can use the techniques involved in managing up to accelerate their next promotion. After nine years in public service, I have had to learn a thing or two about managing up, and thankfully my psychology degree has come in handy.
Often, the point at which we start to wonder about how to manage up is when we encounter a manager who drives us crazy. When we have a good manager, we just don’t think about it. However, it pays to know how to manage up, whether your manager is good or bad at their job.
Why? Because if you’re an aspiring leader, your goal is to create the best relationship with your manager you can, so that they sing your praises even when you’re not in the room.
Before we get into the nitty gritty, I’m going to say something that you need to know but which you’re probably not going to love. It won’t seem fair, and it might mean more work for you, and it is that managing up isn’t about getting your manager to do what you want them to do.
Some people are attracted to the idea of managing up because they have strong convictions, and they think that managing up will allow them to somehow channel these through their manager. But the skills I address in this piece work best for those who themselves want to lead, not simply drive from the backseat. So, if you’re in the former camp, read on.
Understand who your boss is
It’s up to you to build a good relationship with your boss, whoever they are, and whatever their style may be.
This is about foundational relationship building. It is a key skill for an aspiring leader. However, we often forget we need to do this in all directions — up, down and across.
If you have the type of boss you can sit down and converse with, do it.
Here are some questions you might like to ask them:
- Where are you looking to head in your career?
- What are some things I could do better or differently to help you succeed?
- Is there a team member you’ve loved working with?
- What was it about the way they worked that you appreciated?
Few people actually do this with their boss because they just don’t think about it. We are all too focused on our own careers to make those of others a priority. I guarantee, however, that if you do ask your boss these questions, you will stand out to them, and they will work harder for you.
When your boss asks what they can do to help you develop, give them an honest answer
You also want to notice whether your boss is an introvert or an extrovert, whether they are more task-oriented or people-oriented, and whether they appreciate key points over full details. Adjust your communication with them accordingly. If you’re not sure where your boss fits, you can always ask them, or alternatively, watch for how they communicate with you. If they’re sending you emails with dot points, make sure you do the same. Imitation is a form of flattery, but it is more practically a way to sync you and your boss’s work habits and establish compatibility.
When we’re talking about difficult bosses, it’s important to remember that bosses are not simply either awesome or awful. There’s a wide range of managers who we might refer to as ‘difficult’, from the mildly annoying to the highly toxic.
More often than not, there are two reasons we feel our bosses are difficult. Either their values aren’t the same as ours, and/or they’re not meeting the needs we have as an employee.
I want you to recognise right now that it’s okay to have different values from your boss. It doesn’t make one of you better or worse than the other. Chances are that if you think your boss’s values are weird, they think yours are too. Teams of two don’t have to see eye-to-eye to respect each other and achieve great things. Think of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (the founders of Apple). Their values weren’t aligned, but together they literally changed the world.
Consider what needs you have that you are expecting your boss to meet, and that they perhaps aren’t. You can’t force them to meet those needs, so what are some of the ways you can get your needs met that don’t involve your boss?
If you are currently working for a highly toxic boss — someone who, for instance, belittles you at every opportunity — then managing up should come second to survival mode until you can get out. No job is worth your health, mental or physical. Have a support network in place and limit your interactions with that person as much as you can.
Your turn to shine
Now we’re going to look at what to do so that your boss knows what praises to sing when you’re not in the room.
How can you let your manager know what you’re capable of without appearing to be a bragger?
Listen for opportunities when you’re talking to share stories that highlight things you’ve accomplished in the past. If other colleagues are talking about something that isn’t working for them, you can let them know of a time you did succeed at it, and what you did right. You might also be able to share a time when things didn’t go right, and the lessons you learned from it, especially if you turned the situation around.
To know where you want to go, it helps to understand your values, your interests and your skills, and then to look at how they align with the various career paths available to you
When your boss asks what they can do to help you develop, give them an honest answer. This will take some strategic thinking. Tell them about where you want to go in your career and what will help you get there ahead of time.
To know where you want to go, it helps to understand your values, your interests and your skills, and then to look at how they align with the various career paths available to you. If you think being a computer programmer looks like fun, but you value connecting with people and you have no skills in programming, you can either go out and learn those skills and come up with a way to connect with people outside of work, or look at a different career path.
It’s easy to be frustrated with your manager when things aren’t going as you‘d like. At the end of the day, what’s within your control is how you ‘show up’ in the relationship.
So that’s how managing up boils down: by getting to know your boss, understanding how to get your needs met, and being ready with stories about how you’ve shined. Do these three things, and your career journey will be on the up in no time.