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Right now is the best time to start managing up — here's how to get started

What does managing up even mean?

Managing up is what we do when we manage the people that manage us. It’s the artistic discipline of being a good follower. “A follower? Ewww. Gross. That’s not me.” Am I right? 

Who wants to be a follower? Not me, I’m an autonomous humanoid that moves to the beat of my own drum!

But, do I? Or, is it an elaborate ruse I play on myself to imagine I am more powerful than I actually am? 

Hint: it’s a ruse.

I’m self employed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to report to anyone. My clients are my bosses, they and their needs are paramount to my livelihood. Everyone has a boss, whether it’s a direct manager, a board of directors, constituents or clients, we all spend a lot more time following than we care to admit. And yet, so few of us focus on being good at it. That’s where managing up comes in. 

Managing up means getting good at following, it’s managing a boss, a client or your shareholders. Managing up is about building good relationships with the people who have a stake in the work you are doing. It's about being a leader, even if you're not in an official position of leadership.

It’s not about kissing ass, it’s about kicking ass. It’s accepting the situation and adapting your behaviour to excel. 

Managing up can up-level your career.

I’m reminded of an essay I wrote for my grade 12 religion class. I was trying to prove that a purely selfless act is about as real as a unicorn, and I remain steadfast in that opinion. The best way to look out for yourself is to look out for others, and at work that “other” often means your boss. Altruism is complex. There is always personal benefit when helping others. Managing up is more than acting in your boss’ self-interest, it’s about looking out for your whole team so that everyone, including you, succeeds.  

It is too easy to think “it’s not my job to take care of my boss, they get paid more so it’s their responsibility. Why should I work harder to make their life easier?” 

Look, you can think that all you want. Hell, you can even act that way, but it’s a terrible strategy if you want to advance your career. Remember, the best way to look out for yourself is to look out for others. 

Managing up can take many forms, this article is going to focus on managing up for folks within an organization.

How is managing up going to help me?

Let’s consider a scenario where you think your boss is mediocre, at best. You can choose to complain about how shitty your boss is and wish that they would change. Or, you can learn to adapt and excel, in spite of your current obstacles. 

Managing up is about taking the driver’s seat in your own life. Instead of waiting for others to change, you change and adapt to them.

Sitting around waiting for your boss to manage better is like staring at your oven hoping a delicious pie will appear. In most cases, it ain’t gonna happen. Learning how to manage up will help you circumnavigate your manager’s short-comings, which will make your life much, much easier.

Putting in the work to make your boss’s life easier will benefit you in the long-run. Whether you like it or not, your boss matters. They directly impact what it means to “be at work”. 

Investing time and effort into making that relationship better will make “being at work” better. And not only that, your boss is the direct link from you to a promotion. By managing up you’re making their life easier, helping them succeed and showing them exactly how valuable and indispensable you are to the company.

Tailoring your behaviour to a person or situation so you can succeed is empowering. It’s the sign of a real leader. So is developing your conflict resolution skills. You’re giving up your ego for the betterment of the whole. Adaptability is one of our greatest strengths as humans — use it in the workplace.

Finally, learning to manage up is going to make you a better leader. There’s effectively no difference between being good at managing and good at managing up. If you want to advance your career, make your life and lives of those around you easier, then start developing these skills now.

Sold. Now, how do I get started managing up?

“Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
― Abraham Lincoln

Maybe up to now, you’ve seen your boss as the enemy. It’s you versus them. Now’s the time to change that. 

In order to manage up effectively you need to understand what makes them tick, and then provide them with whatever that is. They are not your enemy, they’re your ally and they can help you in ways that you can’t help yourself. So, figure out what gives them energy and what sucks it from their soul. And then, give them energy. Don’t be a soul sucker.

Pay close attention, or heck, even ask them to try a tool like F4S to discover exactly what makes them tick and how they like to communicate. 

Maybe they’re a relationships sort of person and want to chat for a little bit about family stuff before diving in to work. Maybe they’re no-nonsense, numbers focused and just want the facts. Maybe they love competitive marble racing and need to tell you about it before they can move on to anything more pressing. Whatever it is, meet them where they’re at. The key to managing, and in turn, managing up, is to put your needs aside and focus on meeting theirs instead. 

Here’s where things get tricky, that’s WAY easier said than done. Foregoing our own needs to meet someone else’s is one, if not THE, key ingredient to a very unhappy relationship. 

So, to have a happy relationship, we need to look at it another way. Remember earlier when I said altruism is complicated? Let’s stick with that. 

If you look at all the work you’re doing to accommodate your boss’s idiosyncrasies and short-comings as a selfless act, you will resent them. That resentment will make the quality of your work suffer. You don’t want that. So don’t pretend like you’re doing it for them. You’re doing it for you. Yes, they benefit from it, but you’re managing up because it:

  • makes your life easier, 
  • it’s going to advance your career 
  • and it will make you a better leader.

Essential strategies for managing up:

Now that you have the right mindset, you need some rock-solid strategies to get this ball rollin’. You and your boss sit on a spectrum from introversion to extroversion and if you’re synched up, communication is usually copacetic. If you’re not, then things can get a little frustrating.  

(In F4S we often see this play out as having a high motivation for a group environment vs. a solo environment. You can find out how you stack up by taking the F4S assessment for free.)

If you’re more extro and they’re more intro, here are 3 actionable steps you can take this week:

  • If you have non-urgent questions don't send them over as they pop-up or stop by their desk a bunch of times. Make a list throughout the day and send them all over at once. This helps your boss stay focused and saves them time. Most of the time waste on emails is from stopping a task and starting a new one. By grouping your questions together, you’re saving them loads of valuable time. 
  • If you need to meet with them, set-up the meeting yourself. Take the first-step and put your one-to-one in their calendar. One-to-ones might make the introvert anxious. Remember, they’re not perfect and like you, probably avoid things they don’t want to do. But like exercise and writing long-form blogs, we’re often happy to HAVE DONE the things that we put off doing. So help them, they’ll thank you later.
  • Mary Abbajay, in her book Managing Up, suggests using the acronym “W-A-I-T...This stands for ‘Why am I talking?’” Keep your communication focused. Your boss isn't energized by a chat in the same way you are. Make what you say clear, concise, and helpful.

On the flip side, if you’re the more introverted person and your boss is extroverted, here’s 3 actions you can start right away:

  • Make a point to pop into their office or set-up a video call. While you’re there, listen to what they have to say and be interested in it. If the art of banter isn’t your cuppa tea, it can be annoying to listen to someone that seems to enjoy the act of speaking. But indulging them and working on your own banter skills is going to help them see you as someone that’s important and as someone that gives them energy. These skills will also help you win over extroverted team mates down the road.
  • Let them know, “I’m thinking”. Silence can be painful to a lot of people. My partner gets upset if we’re arguing and I go silent. It makes her uncomfortable because she doesn’t understand what’s happening. As soon as I tell her that I’m processing, or thinking, that discomfort goes away. Remember that you’re different, and whenever you can, explain what you’re going through because they probably have no idea.
  • Take care of yourself. Putting in the work to tailor your behaviour to meet others needs is freakin’ exhausting. Make sure you take the time to yourself to regroup and recharge. Don’t be a martyr. Acknowledge that what you’re doing is work, remember why you’re doing it, and then reward yourself for what you’ve done. It’s no small feat.

These example scenarios are just that — imaginary situations to give you an idea of how to approach your problem. But you could be facing something completely different than what I’ve described above. And if that’s your case, don’t worry, the underlying strategy is the same . . .

Focus on understanding the human dynamics behind the relationship and your leader’s work preferences. 

This will not only help to build up your empathy muscles, but a little awareness around preferred work styles goes an incredibly long way.

A great way to put this into action without being intrusive is to propose a team building activity of taking a work motivations assessment, to better understand each other and improve team performance. Think about it — what boss is going to say no to that?

Once you have a glimpse into your manager’s work motivations and how they differ from your own, you can start to pinpoint the reasons their managing style doesn’t completely gel with you.

It will likely help you understand that there are (usually) no bad intentions behind their actions, it’s just a case of mismatched working styles.

Keep in mind that even if there are a lot of big differences between you, most of them can be managed.

Big picture thinking vs. detail orientation:

Here’s another example of managing up to consider:

Your boss is highly motivated by the ‘big picture’ but you tend to be a highly detail-oriented person.

This could play out as tension in your daily interactions, because your boss is overwhelmed by all of the detail you provide in your reports and in calls. Your boss could get flustered and even say ‘Please, get to the point.’ which you interpret as rude and condescending. 

The big difference here is that your brain is wired to see importance in all of the details, so you feel unheard when your boss wants to skip over the details and move straight to the big picture. But your boss is motivated for seeing the ‘forest through the trees’ and is concerned that by focusing on the details too much, it can be easy to lose the path you need to stay on if you want to achieve your team’s goals.

Neither approach is right or wrong, they are just different. In fact, they each have a place in different roles. Managers and leaders typically have to focus on the big picture side of things in order to do their job well. And someone else, say a software developer, needs to be highly detail oriented, or they will feel easily drained by the type of work they do.

Here's the solution:

If this sounds like your situation, this is the time to flex your empathy muscles to understand that your boss is likely just doing their job — their job is making sure the big picture aligns with the company’s goals and your job is taking care of details. So what do you do?

Again, adapt. Learn to send over only the key points needed in a status update, instead of every single detail of every single thing you did that day. And if they ask for more detail, I’m sure you’ll be ready to provide it.

An added benefit: 

Learning to improve your 'big picture' skills can be a great complement to your genius for detail. You'll find you can communicate better (particularly with non-detail oriented people), and it could be helpful when you are in a leadership position that requires more big picture thinking.

Consider your boss's convincer style.

One more highly effective trick for managing up is to consider your leader’s ‘convincer inputs’, or what it takes for them to be convinced about something or someone new.

The four main convincer inputs at work are:

  • Seeing
  • Hearing
  • Reading
  • Doing

These are pretty straightforward, so I'll dive right into an example to demonstrate.

Here's the sample scenario:

You are someone who is easily convinced by hearing. That means you need to hear something that sounds right to you, before you can be convinced about it. This could play out as you needing to have conversations with others before making a decision, which is super important in certain roles, but it could mean you will suffer a lack of confidence in decisions if discussion is skipped.

Now, take your boss:

let’s say they don’t share your need to ‘hear’ information before making a decision — their convincer style is through reading. This means they need to read something that makes sense to them before they can be convinced and make a decision.

It could play out as a need to read a lot of facts, stats and data on a subject, which can work well in a remote work environment. The downside is that your boss could struggle with on-the-spot decision making, making them feel uncertain about their decision until they’ve read enough research on the topic.

The conflict:

You, as someone who is motivated by hearing, want to have discussions about the details of an important team decision before it is made. Your boss, who is motivated by reading but not by hearing, prefers to read about the topic themselves, and since they are in a position of authority (and particularly if they have a high internal reference) they are inclined to make the decision without having any verbal discussion with you first. 

This could be particularly stressful if you enjoy shared responsibility, and feeling like you’ve had an impact and a say in making this decision.

The solution:

If you’ve suggested using a people analytics tool to understand work motivations, it will be easier for your leader to understand how their decision making process affects you, and hopefully they will be open to change.

But if not, it’s your responsibility to manage up. Understand that their convincer-style is completely different from yours, and play into that.

Express your interest (in writing) in the reasons for making the decision, asking about research and stats that supported it. Then, let them know that next time you’d love to help out with the research. This way you’re note only taking some of the work off their plate, but you’re sliding your foot in the door to be included in the decision making process. And when that day comes, you’ll be able to slide in a summary of your thoughts on the research with your written report.

This is a prime example of managing up — and if you’ve got any of the characteristics of a leader yourself, I know you’re up for the challenge.

Remember, these tactics are short-term sacrifices for long-term gains. They will help with your current relationship, and are giving you the tools to excel once you become a leader. 

Don’t expect to be good at this right away. It takes time and effort to tailor our behaviours. It can feel really weird at first, but over time, we learn and eventually it becomes normal. 

I tried, nothing’s happened. Not. One. Single. Thing.

Quitting isn’t always a bad thing. Quitting things too soon or at the first sign of strife isn’t a great quality. But neither is sticking around until the bitter end when things are clearly never going to change and you’re suffering daily. Let’s face it, some bosses are so shit that you just need to quit. 

Here are some signs it could be time to go:

  • You’re in constant stress or fear
  • You harken back to the good ol’ days, before this job, when you used to have joy in your life
  • Your shoulders have found a new home right beside your ears, as you try to shrink into a ball and hide from the tyrant
  • You’ve tried, you have honestly tried so hard, and nothing is making it better
  • All your friends and family tell you that you should quit and they’re worried about your health

That’s just a few of them. But, knowing when it’s time to go isn’t the hard part. The hard part is the actual going. Leaving a job is scary AF. There is so much uncertainty, and so many what if’s. Chiefly these two: What if they change? And. What if I can’t find another job? Let’s address them.

What if they change?

You need to come to terms with the fact that they may never change. If you’ve been putting in the work day-in and day-out and you tried to make things better but nothing has happened, it might be time to let it go. They’re not ready to change. You’re doing yourself and the world a disservice by succumbing to their black hole and not reaching your own potential. Your job isn’t to fix them. Your job is to take care of yourself. 

What if I can’t find another job?

I totally hear you. It’s scary, and that fear is real. I do want to ask, what happens if you stay? As humans, we suffer from something called loss aversion; we’re more motivated not to lose than we are to gain. That’s our reptilian brain speaking and it’s not so useful in these modern times. 

Reframe the question and ask yourself “what if I can find another job?” You’re smart, resourceful and great at your job. You know how to manage as well as how to manage up. You’re committed to constant improvement, you’ll find another job. You owe it to yourself.

What to do if your boss sucks, but you really can't leave your job. 

During a stressful global crisis like the current one, please only follow this last bit of advice if you are truly in a position to. Making your (and your loved ones’) stability and security your number one priority is not a sign of weakness. Nor is it a signal that you need to give up and stay stuck in an unhappy scenario forever. You’re not giving up — you’re being human.

If you do find yourself in this situation, don’t despair. Keeping your reasons for staying forefront of your mind can help make the daily struggle easier to deal with. And keep testing out the strategies for managing up that I outlined earlier — you might as well keep giving them a go. Worst case scenario, you up your leadership chops. Best case scenario, your situation with your manager changes for the better.

And if nothing works, just know that this won’t be forever. Remind yourself that as soon as you have the security and stability to leave, you will.

Wrapping it up.

Managing up is a great way to make the best of a bad situation. It gives you the mindset and the skills you need to thrive in (almost) any environment. By managing you’re not only your current state better, you’re also preparing yourself to manage well once you get that well-deserved promotion. 

With F4S you can use science to understand your work motivations and how they compare to your manager's. Sign up for free today.

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