In twenty first century organisations the ability to ‘manage up’ – having input into how you are managed and developing a good working relationship with your manager – is as critical to organisational performance as managing ‘down’ – effectively managing the staff who report to you. Sound upward management enables organisations to make the most of the talent, skills and experience people bring to any organisation.
Managing up is not about manipulating the boss or about self-serving actions like building the case for a pay rise – even though that may be necessary sometimes! Managing up is about developing effective working relations with the person or people to whom you report and/or those who are accountable for your work outputs. Whilst advice and guidance on how to manage down abounds, the processes, techniques and skills of managing upwards are often poorly understood or misinterpreted. To successfully manage up professionals must pay attention to three related factors; understanding your manager’s role, appreciating their working style and deepening understanding of yourself in your work role.
Understanding your Manager ’s Role
Aim to understand your manager’s role and how your role contributes to achievement of their objectives. What are your manager’s core responsibilities? Are you clear about what they are held accountable for? How do your responsibilities and areas of accountability relate to theirs? What are their priorities? And are your priorities aligned?
By making the effort to understand what is expected of your manager and how their performance is measured you put yourself in a much stronger position to have conversations which relate to what is important to your manager. Without an understanding of your manager’s role, you risk raising topics which, whilst important to you and addressing your priorities, are of far less significance to your manager. When you are seeking your manager’s support for a particular initiative and wanting to convey how best he or she can support you and your team, an understanding of their role enables you to ensure that the conversation is also about their needs.
By way of example, a newly-appointed Human Resources manager, reporting to the CEO, began the process of understanding her manager’s role by reading the organisation’s strategic plan. This provided her with valuable insight into the scope of the CEO’s accountability and paved the way for a conversation between them about the HR manager’s plans to restructure her team. She quickly gained the CEO’s support by justifying her plan in terms of intended outcomes from the restructure which would directly contribute to realisation of the organisation’s strategic objectives. Then, after the restructure, the HR Manager’s understanding of her manager’s priorities provided a helpful basis for their discussion of professional development needs for newly appointed team leaders.
Appreciating your Manager ’s Working Style
The second aspect of managing up is taking steps to understand your manager’s approach to managing him or herself in their role. And you don’t need to be a psychotherapist to do this – there is much to be learned from keen observation and active listening.
Make an effort to carefully observe what your manager says and does – in formal settings such as presentations and meetings as well as in informal interactions with individuals and groups. Take note of how they communicate with different types of people and with individuals in a range of organisational roles. Pay attention to how they interact with peers, with others who report to them, with clients and other key people.
Your active listening skills will come in handy for deepening your understanding of their working style. Aim not to judge their approach but to learn about and thereby better understand the person and their preferences.
Developing an understanding of your manager’s interpersonal style and communication preferences puts you in a stronger position to develop your own relationship with them. It might be that your habitual style is complementary to what you have observed or it might be that you need to adjust your habitual style in order to accommodate theirs. Again, by way of example, a team leader with a strong people orientation and a tendency to favour team harmony over rigorous debate found herself reporting to a manager for whom evidence-based decision-making and analytical rigour were paramount. She had developed a good working relationship with his predecessor and felt apprehensive about working with the replacement manager. Her misgivings were soon justified. Within a short space of time, the more senior manager expressed concerns that the team leader was not up to her job because whenever they sat down to review the team’s performance, her focus was on team members’ working relationships with each other and with clients. To her new manager she seemed to have little interest in her team’s key performance indicators or in analysing quantitative data about her team members’ performance. Without a clearer understanding of her manager’s working style preferences the manager came to the conclusion that her manager had no interest in people.
The third aspect of managing up is to understand yourself. Knowing who you are at work, what is important to you, your strengths and areas in which you need support gives you a great start in building the interdependence which is the foundation of a good working relationship with your manager. Interdependence is about you depending on your manager for feedback, support and adequate direction and about your manager depending on you for ideas, for hard work and for effort towards the organisation achieving its goals.
By getting to know yourself well, you gain a headstart on working effectively with your manager. For example, if you know you are an extrovert who finds talking helps you think a problem through and you report to an introverted manager, they are unlikely to respond well to your habitual talkative approach to problem solving. On the other hand, as a deep thinker they may be able to provide you with valuable insights if you explain your problem and your ideas to date on its resolution and leave them to think about what you have said and get back to you later. Knowing yourself well allows you to guide your boss in providing the best possible support to you.
As an example, a newly-promoted manager with a social work background, a strong people orientation and tertiary qualifications in management, felt confident about her capacity to manage staff. However, she also knew herself to be a ‘big picture’ person, well able to imagine future possibilities and outline creative solutions to problems but lacking in attention to sufficient detail to map out detailed plans. She felt that a short course on project management could round out her management skill set but feared that, given her habitual style and personality type, it may prove to be a poor investment. Her manager helped her think though her options and together they decided that a short course on understanding project management principles would be the best professional development investment for her and that one of her team members should attend a more in-depth program on project management.
Multi-focal Managing Up
What if your ‘managing up’ challenges involve more than one relationship? In a matrix structure you may need to think about your working relationship with a line manager and a functional manager such as a project team leader. For the manager of a major project, managing up can be about a relationship with the client, the project’s sponsor and/or various other stakeholders who depend on the project’s outputs. For some individuals, managing up involves relationships with each member of a group. For example a CEO will need to consider their relationship with each member of the board in order to manage up optimally even though his primary line of communication may be with the Chairperson.
However many ‘bosses’ you have the principles are the same; understand the role, objectives and priorities of those who are accountable for the outcomes of your work and invest time and effort in gaining an understanding of yourself in your work role. Ultimately successful outcomes depend on you taking responsibility for working relationships down and up.
Looking for more ideas?
For readers with an interest in extending their understanding of some of the topics covered in this article, the following related titles are available on the Professionals Australia website:
About the Author
Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator, specialising in organisational development and change leadership through FourLeaf Consulting (www.fourleaf.com.au). She facilitates team planning and development, undertakes organisational reviews using a collaborative action learning approach, coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures