Managing up is a skill that's often mentioned in passing but rarely explored in detail. Colleagues will say, "You need to manage up as well as down." But if asked to elaborate, they'll usually just explain that you need to learn to deal with your boss. However, managing up properly can have a huge impact on your working life — and even make the difference between career success and failure. So, how do you do it?
Tell your boss what you want
You will often hear people complain, "My boss has no idea how much that annoys me." And you know what? You're right. Your boss is not a mind-reader. Many problems between bosses and employees occur because one party does not know there is a problem; the problems can fester for years. Tell them and they will often change their behaviour immediately. In a similar vein, your boss is not going to magically know that you want more responsibility or a pay rise. You need to communicate.
Get to know their management style
What do they like and what do they hate? If you have a boss who is detail-oriented and likes to be kept in the loop, provide them with regular updates. Conversely, if your boss is a broad-brush person concerned mainly with the bigger picture, don't bother them with every incremental advance. Understand their personality, too. Are they a social person who loves small talk or an introverted type who just wants to get on with the job? What's their background? What do they value in professional terms?
Understand what they want
Many people take directions from their boss but never actually ask the boss what they want. So sit down and ask what they hope to achieve and how you can be part of that. Understand their career goals and ambitions. It is in your interest to do this. If you have a high-flying boss who is moving up fast — and you show yourself to be a diligent and dedicated employee who has bought in to their vision — they'll often take you with them when they move on.
Bring them solutions, not problems
No boss is going to thank you for telling them that your colleague Michael is ill this week and so you will not be able to deliver a report on time. Instead, say, "Michael is ill this week. Our options are as follows. Give me Olivia for two days or drop the last section of the report and we can deliver it on time. Alternatively, we can get it done for next Wednesday. I can sound out the client on this if you want." Try to bring this positive, outcome-focused thinking to everything you do. Your boss will see you as proactive and can-do, even though what you are really telling them is that you can't deliver a report on time.
Understand the pressures your boss is under
It's not uncommon for people to gripe about their manager and how difficult they are, only to later discover that the manager was in fact shielding their team from the worst of it. Make an effort to understand your boss's place in the hierarchy, the issues and politics she has to deal with, and the health of your department and company. This way, when your boss says, "I've got to cut your budgets by 20%," rather than moan, you'll know everyone else's budgets were cut by 35% and she's doing her best for you.
Be a good employee
Be respectful, courteous, and helpful. Pick your battles and don't endlessly push boundaries or indulge in sarcasm. Show that you are a team player and that you understand that your boss has other people to manage and not just you. Remember, too, that your boss, like you, needs to manage upwards. Demonstrate empathy and emotional intelligence.
Do not undermine your boss
There's a fine line between being a proactive employee who shows initiative and picks up the slack and one who looks like they might be a threat. This line will vary significantly from person to person, and you need to know where the boundaries are.
Understand office politics but do not play them
Knowing what the tensions are in and around your colleagues and what other people's agendas are will help you be more effective. But as much as you can, you need to rise above petty rivalries. Similarly, do not butter up your boss. You want to be seen as professional and competent with a reputation for speaking candidly, not as a yes man or yes woman.
People often get themselves into terrible trouble because they don't tell their boss when things start going wrong. This means minor problems balloon into serious ones that cost huge amounts of money and eat up time. In the worst situations, these can even threaten the survival of businesses. So, make sure you have a relationship with your boss where you can tell them when things start to go wrong.
Make your boss look good
Support them and promote them and resist the urge to bad-mouth them. This doesn't mean being a sycophant or being unrealistic about your boss. It means that you act as an ally and a supporter and recognise that their success is your success.
Rhymer Rigby is an FM magazine contributor and author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Neil Amato, an FM magazine senior editor, at Neil.Amato@aicpa-cima.com.
Want to be more visible to your boss in a remote-work environment? Get advice on that and more from Rhymer Rigby in the recent FM podcast episode "13 Answers to Questions About Work Amidst the Pandemic".