Managing Upwards – 8 Tactics for Managing Your Boss

managing-upwardsManaging upwards is a skill that you won’t find in any job description, but it is core to your job if you want to do well. What is managing upwards, anyway? Well, managing upwards is mostly about how to manage your boss.  To manage upwards effectively, you must take repeated actions to proactively manage your relationship with your boss, as well as shape his perception of your work.   (Note: For simplicity, I am using the pronoun “he, his, him” to refer to either a male or female boss.)

Whether you just got a new boss or have been working for someone for a while, it’s never too late to make a few changes that can improve your relationship with him. A good relationship with your boss can mean better projects in the future, faster tracks to promotion, being less micro-managed, and/or being given the benefit of the doubt if you stumble a little at work. It’s worth it to invest some time in upward management.

With that said, not all bosses are created equally. There will always be unfair, insecure, or incompetent bosses out there that can make your life difficult, no matter what you do. It’s important for you to know what kind of manager you have, since you should invest time in a boss that you respect. Assuming you want to invest the time, here are eight tactics I have used successfully. Use this as a check list to see which ones you are already doing, and which new ideas you will try next.

Eight Tactics for Effective Upward Management

  1. Get to know your boss’s working style – What are your boss’s pet peeves? What is his preferred mode of communication? Little things matter, as we are all human and our work styles will differ. For example, if one of his pet peeves is being interrupted mid-sentence, and you tend to do that whenever you are excited about the work, it can cause a lot of misunderstanding and put a strain on the relationship. So, find a way (e.g. during a one-on-one meeting or a coffee catch up) to ask about his preferred working style. The simple act of even making this extra effort can build a good impression with him.
  2. Proactively communicate your progress with your boss – Do you know how often your boss wants to be updated with your progress, and at what level of detail? Some managers love to know every detail, and others are very hands-off. Understand what kind of boss you have, and what level of communication gives him the sense that you know what you’re doing.
    Also, start communicating just a bit more often than he needs. You never want your boss to chase after you for a status update. Every time he wonders about your progress, your status email should already be in his inbox, or you should already have a status meeting scheduled for that week. This tactic shows your boss that he won’t need to be on top of you for updates. You will also build trust with him, to the point where he knows you will update him at the appropriate time.
  3. Ask questions and clarify expectations.  If you are doing this already, then good for you. You are managing upwards without even knowing it.  It’s amazing how many people don’t do this.  I was one of them.  I used to think that it’s bad to ask too many questions of my boss.  After I started managing people, I thought differently.  I realized that when I delegate, I can often leave out details, or assume that my team members know what I mean.  I always felt more comforted when a team member asked me clarification questions to make sure they understood their responsibilities.  A manager has to deal with many layers of information and detail, and we will forget what we have explained to whom when we are in a pinch. Always clarify your boss’s expectation of your responsibilities if you feel it’s unclear.   This will keep both you and your manager from making unwarranted assumptions.
  4. Consistently demonstrate your ability to achieve results with minimal direction – This is not about hiding in a corner and struggling alone until you get the perfect answer, and never bothering your boss until you are done. I used to think it was. On the contrary, it’s about demonstrating that you own the issue you were delegated. This includes updating your boss on key milestones before he asks, getting your boss’s feedback on work products early, and asking for help early — if you need it.
    What all this has in common is initiating the communication at the right time. Nothing stresses a manager more than uncertainty. By doing this, you become a certainty, and he can rely on you to involve him at the right time if needed. Now, what boss wouldn’t want that in a team member?
  5. Warn your boss early of a bad situation.   When something goes south, our instinct is to fix it or hide it. If you can fix it for sure, then do so, but hiding it would not be wise. Sooner or later your boss will find out, and the worst way for him to find out is from his boss or at a group meeting where he will look stupid for not knowing. When you see a bad situation developing that affects your boss, even if you may have caused it, warn him about it and come up with some solutions. It’s the only way to help yourself and your boss. Refer to my other article, “How to Tell Your Boss Bad News” to learn more.
  6. Ask for feedback and career advice.   You don’t need to wait for the formal process to ask for feedback or advice.  Most companies’ review cycles are every six months, and that’s too long to wait for feedback.  You can proactively set up a meeting (e.g., every 3 months or after a major project) to get feedback and career advice.  This sends two signals to your boss:
    1) You care about your performance and want to improve.
    2) You respect his opinion and experience, and want his advice not only on your performance but on your career.
    Refer to my article, “How to Discuss My Career Plans with My Manager”, to learn more.
  7. Connect with your boss on a personal level.   Your boss is a person, too, with a life outside of work. If you discover a shared hobby, non-profit cause, or mutual interest in something, nurture it. If you find a common interest outside of work, it can only help your relationship at work. Obviously, make sure this is natural, as you should not stalk your boss outside of work either.
  8. Thank your boss for helping you.  This is not about ass-kissing. It’s gotta be genuine.  If your boss goes out of his way to recommend you for a cool project or really helped you develop a new skill, give him a genuine thank you.  You don’t need to get a gift or anything.  Just a few sentences (best in person instead of email) to say you appreciated it.  A heart felt thanks can go a long way in building a good relationship with anyone, especially your boss.

At the end of the day, these eight upward management tactics all have one thing in common: It’s about you proactively showing your boss that you can manage yourself, keep him informed, and know how to use his help. These managing upwards tactics are successful because they are all geared towards helping you be a top performing team member who is easy to manage. You will be able to build a great reputation and relationship with your boss as you show him that he can rely on you to deliver and communicate at the right time. This greatly alleviates his stress, keeps him from having to micromanage you, and helps him succeed. In turn, he will naturally have more time and incentive to help you succeed.

Your comments:  How is your relationship with your boss?  Please share any lessons learned or good stories.   Add your comments below and let’s have a discussion.

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I am always in your corner.

– Lei

2 thoughts on “Managing Upwards – 8 Tactics for Managing Your Boss

  1. yassy

    Hi, thanks for this nice article.
    I’ve recently rolled off of a project. I was a manager for several years and in this new position, I am employed as a senior consultant in IT. in this project as the first project, my role was as a simple analyst and technical resource. I almost did all I’ve been learned in Managing upward to make the trust, do the job done correctly and … but it didn’t work!
    I know that the first reason was this project was not the best fit for me, but I tried to downgrade myself and fit myself with that! a second reason was the project manager was not happy with me at all even I was doing well which I didn’t know what to do with that while none of the tactics worked thoroughly for this guy.

    I will be happy if you have any advice for this weird experience that I had!

    1. Lei Han Post author

      Hi Yassy, thanks for commenting. I may need to know more about your situation in order to provide very specific guidance. My best guesses on what may have happened to you, is either 1) your manager was competitive or threatened by you and/or 2) you may have unintentionally provided him too much advice about how to run this project.

      Regarding 1, Sounds like you were too senior for this role and if your manager is not a good one and insecure, it’s likely that he will try to assert his superiority by being more harsh toward you. see this article and let me know whether your manager showed any of these signs.

      Regarding 2, sometimes when we are too senior for a role, we tend to want to “help” the manager more as we may see how he can better run the project given we have also been a manager. If you offered this “help” but either didn’t position it in the right way or to a “manager” that didn’t want the “help” from you, you would have inadvertently damaged the relationship without knowing it.

      Let me know if either one of these fit your situation. If you want more targeted help, sign up for a soft skills gym membership, and I can provide more indepth advice. best wishes.


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