The Ultimate Guide to Managing Up

Achieving Goals, Career Enrichment, Confidence, Leadership Coaching
03/11/24 - Brenna Chambliss
women colleagues talking

Raise your hand if you have a boss. That makes two of us!

Everyone may not be a manager, but nearly everyone HAS a manager. So managing up is something almost all working people have to deal with.

It’s awesome when you have an awesome manager. And at the same time, people are people, and people are flawed. Managers are not perfect, so sometimes it falls to us to “manage” them.

It’s a delicate balance that can make a BIG difference for you and for your manager.

What does it mean to manage up? Keep reading to learn:

  • What managing up is
  • Why managing up matters
  • How to manage up effectively

Let’s get started!

The definition of managing up

Managing up is “essentially managing your manager – doing what you can to get what you need from your manager to do the job to the best of your ability,” according to LEADx.

When you’re ready to manage up, you’re ready to take control of your work. This is a great skill to learn for your own development and can sometimes even lead to your manager seeing your leadership potential.

When you manage up, you’re taking control of the situation and your career. You’re speaking up about what you need, paving the way forward and helping your manager achieve success.

woman listening to her colleague present paperwork

What is managing up, really?

Basically, managing up involves the things you do to work well with your boss, make their job easier and contribute to their success.

Is your boss hard to get a hold of? Like many managers, they’re probably very busy and involved in several other areas of your organization, making their time a commodity.

Busy managers can sometimes make their employees feel uncared for unintentionally. Just because they’re busy doesn’t mean you can’t build an effective working relationship with them and do a stellar job.

Managing up is about how you use your time with them (and apart) to gain clarity on what success means to them and help them achieve it.

It doesn’t just impact your relationship with them. Managing up filters up to your boss’ own manager and leaders across your company. What you do when you manage up can make your boss (and you) look great to upper management because it can make you achieve more, consistenly.

Why managing up matters

Managing up has lots of benefits across the board. Here are some of the biggest ones.

Managing up helps your career development

When you start actively managing up, you learn how to work with anyone on anything to get stuff done, which is amazing for your career development.

This skill makes you a valuable player and an essential part of the team. It is a fantastic notch in your belt for leadership development (even if you’re not actually in a leadership role).

It can also help you avoid surprises because you know what your boss is focused on and can keep your work and priorities in alignment.

You can manage your time more wisely by focusing on what matters most and saying no to what takes away from that.

Managing up also helps you build trust with your manager, which leads to a healthier relationship with your boss.

Doing this makes you more intentional with your work, which means you’ll have an easier time cataloging your impact and success. This is PERFECT performance review fodder.

So if you’re starting to manage up at work, be sure to keep track of what you accomplish so you rock your next performance review with strong examples to help you communicate all the awesomeness you’ve accomplished.

Managing up builds trust with your manager

When you learn to proactively communicate and achieve success with your manager or leader in a way that works for them, they start seeing you as a trusted resource who makes sure nothing slips through the cracks.

You help them meet their goals and look good to their own boss.

They feel supported and successful because of your contributions.

Your manager knows they can rely on you, which is great for your future working relationship.

Overall, this is one of the best ways to build a healthy relationship with your boss by making your boss’ life easier and catering to their style. (Plus, it likely makes your own life easier, too.)

Managing up works at all levels

Yes, it is called managing up but really, these are skills that will help you with everyone around you in your career, not just those higher up.

Truly, this approach to work is about understanding how those around you work, what they need to do their job well, and how you can make their job easier with a more proactive and informed communication style.

Whether you bring this topic to a meeting with your direct report, manager, or any other employee with whom you work closely, there is so much to learn. You can gain an understanding of the role you play in supporting your boss, team, department and organization hit their goals.

This clarity helps you focus on what’s most important to your role so you can contribute in a more meaningful way than just putting out the fires of the day.

Using these skills helps you build a positive relationship with people across your organization because this approach ensures both you and those around you are aligned on the work that is being done.

It will give you a clear focus, which means you can be more strategic and thoughtful with your partnerships, pull in the right people to get the right things done and increase the visibility of both you and your work.

man presenting to his team

Managing up is key for your reputation

Proactive communication is crucial for building trust across your organization, especially with higher ups and senior leaders.

By communicating your contributions clearly, you are demonstrating your leadership skills and how you are adding value to the organization as a whole.

This approach is also vital if there is ever a mistake or problem with one of your projects. When you can get ahead of the problem and provide a plan for how you will manage or correct it, you are not only making your boss’ job easier, but giving everyone you work with a prime example of how you can be trusted.

Do not underestimate the impact this process has on performance reviews. By communicating regularly and proactively, you are setting yourself up for career stability down the road.

How to start managing up at work

The best thing about managing up is that it doesn’t need to involve some big, fancy, complicated strategy. In fact, managing up can be quite simple. It all comes down to being intentional and seeing clarity and alignment – over and over again.

Here are Ama La Vida’s four steps to manage up effectively.

colleagues talking to their boss

Step 1: Learn your manager’s needs and expectations

Don’t play any guessing games here. Start off on the right foot with your manager by asking key questions about the following:

  • Their communication style and preferences
  • Their biggest pet peeves
  • Their top priorities and goals and how you play a role

Focus on understanding how they prefer to work together, what they need to accomplish, and then where you fit in. Make sure you’re aligned by repeating back to them what you’ve heard and what you think you can do to to contribute to their goals.

Even if you’re not just getting started with your manager, it’s not too late to check in on these essentials. It shows initiative and could be just what you need for a positive fresh start for your relationships and shared projects.

Step 2: Communicate your own needs and boundaries

Managing up does not equal people pleasing! People pleasing is when you put others’ need before your own to make other people happy. In the long run, this actually harms you and can lead to burnout.

Your boundaries and needs are still important when we talk about managing up. In fact, consider this step absolutely crucial to the managing up process as an employee and team member.

To start, provide guidance to your boss about what you need to do your best work. The conversations about resources and working styles should be a two-way street. It is your job to tell your boss how you work best, what your goals are, and what is and isn’t feasible for your life.

For example, make a plan to share your own communication preferences, working hours, needs, and perceived challenges. If you didn’t do this when you started your job, take some time in an upcoming one-on-one or during performance reviews. It’s never too late to create a stronger working relationship.

Don’t forget, there are ways to express your boundaries while still being a team player. Check out this blog post to learn a simple way of considering boundaries.

Step 3: Establish a cadence for communication

At this point, you’ve laid the groundwork to help you manage up. Now it’s time to keep your progress top of mind by setting a regular touchpoint with your manager.

Think: weekly or bi-weekly check-in meetings and/or progress updates via email.

Do whatever you can to make your communication consistent.

This is something easy to push off, but it’s very important to stay consistent. Your manager may be someone who reschedules your check-ins often. Help them understand how important it is to you and your success together to have these regular meetings. Work together to make them work for both of you.

By establishing consistent communication, you’re creating an predictable flow of information between both of you, which will ultimately give you more control and autonomy in your work.

woman talking with a colleague

Use these meetings to:

  • Provide updates on your projects.
  • Ask for support where needed.
  • Align on shifting priorities.
  • Highlight your wins.
  • Gain clarity as you update your goals.
  • Continue fostering a shared understanding of success.

Pro tip:

Make your own agenda and be efficient with your time. Do not assume your manager is going to give you a structure for your regular communications here.

The process of creating your own agenda is a part of managing up! You decide what’s most helpful and needed for yourself and your manager based on how you’ve decided to partner together, what their goals are and what you’re doing to help them achieve those goals.

Remember, it is up to you to lay the groundwork and make it easy for your manager to give you what you need in return.

Step 4: Ask for feedback and adjust

This last step is so important! It’s not enough just to set expectations, set boundaries, and establish regular communication. Without regular opportunities for refinement, your proactive communication may not actually be meeting your manager’s needs.

It’s vital to use some of the time in your meetings with your manager to confirm that they’re getting the right level of information for their communication style.

Your manager may not think about providing you feedback, so it’s important to ask them questions.

Here are some questions to add to your regular check-ins:

  • How useful is the information I’m providing?
  • Would you like more or less detailed updates?
  • Is the format in which I’m providing updates useful to you?
  • How have we worked well together recently?
  • What could I be doing differently?
  • What should I keep doing, start doing and stop doing?
  • How can I best support you this [week/month/quarter]?

It’s an ongoing process to manage up effectively, and it can be boiled down to communicating and ensuring understanding on a regular basis. I repeat – regular!

Be sure to take your manager’s responses into consideration and adjust accordingly. As you continue to refine your approach to your relationship and communication styles, you’ll begin to not only make your boss’ job easier, but further showcase the leadership skills you’ve built along the way.

a group of teammates talking at work

Teach your direct reports how they can manage up to you

If you’re a manager yourself, this concept may be new to your direct reports. By facilitating a conversation around expectations and communication styles, you’re actually setting up every employee on your team for success and ensuring employees feel heard.

You can help your direct reports develop this skill by:

  • Sharing this concept with them.
  • Helping them to understand how it will make not only your job easier, but actually benefits them as well.
  • Empowering them to take ownership of their own work, needs and goals.
  • Scheduling regular check-ins to make sure you’re aligned.
  • Sharing your own goals and measures of success.
  • Helping them understand what they can do to help you achieve your goals.
  • Invite them to support your decision making when their work is involved.
  • Share constructive feedback (and invite it from them) for their development and to improve your working relationship.

Help your employees manage up by ultimately giving them the reigns, framework and the gentle push to do so.

Most importantly, part of managing up is allowing your employees to become leaders of their work. With a little transparency and encouragement, you can support your own direct reports to manage up, too.

Tips for managing up when you have a bad manager

We know it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Sometimes you really do just have a manager who is unavailable, unresponsive and undeniably bad. As much as we try to avoid it, bad bosses happen.

The first sign that you should start managing up is if you’re unsure whether you’re successful in your role because your manager is difficult to pin down, read or communicate with.

If you’re in a situation with a bad boss, here are a few tips:

  • Don’t go over your manager’s head to complain about them.
  • Send them updates, requests and questions via email if they won’t meet with you (let the record show you’ve tried, even if all else fails!).
  • Connect with your team and others in management to find answers you need.
  • Make sure they know what you’re working on, share your ideas with them, and show them you know what needs to be done and how you’re going do it.

We won’t lie. It is hard having a bad manager. And we know it makes your work-life difficult.

While your immediate response may be, “I’ll just quit,” there’s more in your control than you think.

Start by asking them what you can do to support them. Understand what their main goals are. Then maintain an open line of communication and help them understand how you’re working to support their top goals.

When in doubt, come to them with problems and solutions. Don’t wait for them to provide solutions for you.

Take control over your work, do what is in your power, become more autonomous and make sure your work directly impacts (and elevates) theirs.

woman talking with co-worker

How to start managing up

Managing up is a win-win for both you, your team AND your boss.

There are many different ways to manage up using our four steps:

  1. Learn your manager’s needs and expectations.
  2. Communicate your own needs and boundaries.
  3. Establish a regular cadence for communication.
  4. Ask for feedback and adjust regularly.

There is flexibility here to manage up in whatever way feels most right to you. It’s important that you find your unique flavor of managing up and adjust your style as you learn and gain feedback to build a great working relationship with your manager and those around you.

How you navigate a conversation with your boss may not be how someone else does. That’s okay. You and your boss are unique individuals who will have a unique way of working together.

When you practice managing up, you’ll make both of your jobs easier while communicating efficiently and working together effectively, and also taking control of your career and creating opportunities for yourself in the long run. Who wouldn’t want that?

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Brenna Chambliss

Hi, I'm Brenna and I'm a certified coach here at Ama La Vida. I love helping clients shift into manual mode. Learning how to listen to your own voice is a process, and it’s crucial to building a life you really love. I help my clients increase their self-awareness, get “unstuck,” work through challenges and goals and take action toward a more fulfilling life.

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