Emma: One thing that I’ve learned over time is that managing up is different from being good at my job, or being a good employee. I’m skimming our Good Employee Scorecard right now — you can feasibly have zero relationship with your boss and still be a pretty excellent employee.
Andy: Totally. The core of being a good employee is meeting expectations: we do what we’re asked to do, well and on time. But that means the arrow of influence is only from your manager to you. You want arrows going both directions. That’s what managing up is — creating a bidirectional relationship between you and your manager.
Emma: We’ve talked a bit about managing your manager before. The pro of doing it well is that everything gets easier all the way down: for your boss, for you, for the reports you’re managing. It puts you on more equal footing with your manager — they’re still your boss and in a position of authority, but you’ve developed enough trust and capital to influence their perspective and decision-making.
When everyone is working to understand each other, both up the chain of command and down, all the parts are moving in the same direction. There is probably a great metaphor for this.
Andy: A bobsled crew?
Andy: It’s definitely a squishy, vague concept that varies depending on your situation and the players involved. So here’s a real, concrete example: I once had a boss who couldn’t read a long email. They needed it to be 50 words max, mostly bullets, or it would languish for weeks. When I learned their style, and used it, I got better results.
I’ve also had bosses who hated short emails — Where’s the context? For them, I needed to attach a report to the email and schedule a meeting to go over it in person. Is either the only right way to manage? Nope! It was just each person’s style, and I benefited from figuring it out and using it.
Emma: Befitting is key. Managing up should create a more productive relationship that helps you get what you want and need. It’s not adapting to someone else just for the sake of adapting.
Andy: It’s also useful when I’m advocating for someone on my team. Sure, I could stay silent all year, personally knowing that Rachel deserves a raise, then spring that fact on my boss at reviews. But would I get the raise approved? They wouldn’t know her or her work; only I would — and that might not be enough. Through managing up, I build my boss’s perception of Rachel over time, so they’re already on board with the promotion when it’s time.
Emma: As one might expect when we’re talking about vague, squishy concepts, we recommend you make a scorecard to help you pinpoint what managing up means for you and your boss.
Make Your Own Managing Up Scorecard
The broad strokes of managing up are pretty universal: you know your manager, speak their language, and use both to advocate for you and your team. What’s not universal are the specifics for how to manage your boss. Start by brainstorming on a few questions in each category:
I get my manager
– What are their priorities and motivations? What freaks them out and keeps them up at night
– What are they working on and toward? What is currently on their plate? How does my work and role fit into that?
– What environments are they happiest in? When are they most open and energized, versus stressed and disengaged?
– What are their strengths and weaknesses? What do they do that annoys me? What do they do that I really appreciate?
I speak their language
– How do they like to communicate? When have I gotten an easy and quick yes? When has a decision languished?
– What do they like and dislike? What really makes them appreciate someone or something? What irritates them?
– When have they been wowed? When have they been supremely disappointed?
I advocate for myself and for my team
– What do I want and need from them? What would make my job easier?
– Is my boss aware of my goals? Do they know where I want to go?
– What have they done that’s made things harder for me and my team?
– From their perspective, what does it look like down here? Is that accurate? Can I make that more accurate?
Now, use your brainstorm to create a scorecard you can use to measure how well you’re managing up, and guide you to get even better. Your first draft is apt to change over time as you and your boss evolve as humans and as teammates.
Here’s an example of how we’ve managed up with a boss from our past. (You’ll see how specific it is. You might recognize your own boss in parts, but lots of these will likely sound completely foreign.)
I get my manager
– Their priorities and motivations: crushing KPIs, huge MoM wins, proving themselves as a big league player who gets results, being an influential mentor.
– They’re afraid of: being embarrassed, underprepared, out-classed.
– They’re working on: establishing trust with the C-suite, huge volume and growth while reducing budget.
I speak their language
– I make it easy for my manager to say yes by always thinking about the budget implications, anticipating their questions, and having an answer during casual conversations.
– I know and use their preferred communication modes: face-to-face, especially over team lunches or company happy hours; also, well-documented and organized memos with a lot of numbers.
– I don’t freak them out: I frame problems or anticipated problems as a coaching opportunity and ask for advice. I take care of as many issues on my own as possible, and let them know after. I help them prepare for big presentations and am available to vent and post-mortem when something’s gone wrong.
I advocate for myself and for my team
– I give my manager an accurate picture of my team’s abilities by telling narrative stories over lunch of how they’re awesome and introducing them to each other at happy hours. I also give my team presentation opportunities (that we’ve prepared in advance!) for exposure.
– I say no to shiny ideas my manager has that won’t actually pan out, and provide documentation that details why. I ask for resources and justify them with my budget, future growth opportunity, and speed.
– I speak candidly about my goals and ask for advice and help as a mentor. I talk to them about my weaknesses and the steps I’m taking to grow.
Emma: The scorecard follows a learning curve. The first section, I get my boss, is all about understanding their reality. The next section, I speak their language, is you creating your own plan for how you’ll adapt to your boss’s reality and operate within it. The third section, I advocate for myself and my team, is layering on that skill to your advantage. Give yourself time to work through all three.
Andy: It’s like getting better at trapping wild game: a lot of observation and trial and error. Notice what your boss does, what they respond to, what they don’t respond to. Ask them questions. Try something and see if it works. Your hypotheses don’t have to be perfect!
Emma: And they’ll change over time because people change over time. Managing up isn’t something you get good at, and stay good. You lose ground anytime the dynamics change: your company IPOs, you hit a stressful surge, everyone starts working from home, you get a new boss. You need to re-observe and re-learn what makes your manager tick.
Andy: The major down side of managing up is that it takes significant effort. You’re in a partner dance with someone you probably didn’t choose and might not even like; you’re not just going out on the floor and jiving your way. If you adapt to your partner too much, you might lose your own style and preferences. And none of this is even in your job description!
Emma: I can attest, it’s possible to lose sight of the point: that managing up should make everything easier. If everything’s getting harder, or you’re having to contort yourself into bizarre shapes to match your manager’s moves, or it’s taking so much of your mental capacity you can’t do your job — those are some things to notice and question. Maybe you’re trying to manage up too much or too quickly. Maybe your boss is unreasonable, or uncomfortable with your arrow of influence.
Andy: Red alert! If your boss can’t take your arrow pointing toward them, they’re probably not a long-term advocate of you, your growth, or your career. You might want to start looking for something new.