Effective Communication

Managing Up Without Kissing Up

manage up

Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine, recently said the only regret she has about her career is that she didn’t manage up.

She’s had a great career in spite of it. But managing up really is crucial, especially as the most frequent reason people quit their jobs is because of problems with their boss.

But like Reichl, many talented professionals are not as good at managing up as they are at managing down. They don’t get that it is necessary. Isn’t being good at your job enough? And the whole notion sounds too political and manipulative and self-promoting to them.

For manage-down types, the only way to master managing up is to think of it not as a negative, but as just another part of your job. And if you are among those with a bad boss, managing up may help you save your sanity–and your job.

A simple definition of managing up is learning what your boss most needs to excel in their job and then helping them do it. Not because he or she is weak or incompetent. Not because you like him. Or because you don’t.

And don’t think of managing up as any more or less necessary than any other part of your job as a path to a promotion. Do so, and you’ll likely come off to your boss and colleagues as being more talk than action.

How to Manage Up without Kissing Up

Learning how to manage your boss comes down to two things: Really understanding them, and using that knowledge to guide how you communicate.

If you have a difficult relationship with a boss, are being micromanaged, or feel your accomplishments aren’t being recognized, the underlying issue is often a lack of trust, says Alexandra Sleator, an Ivy Exec coach and the founder of Coaching for Inspiration. “To get along with one’s boss, to get them to give you interesting work, to get them to promote and support you, they need to trust you,” says Sleator. “The question is: how to create trust in that individual?”

Of course, each dynamic is different, but building trust is based on understanding a person and taking steps to improve the situation. And it takes time.

Start by trying to see your boss’ world through their eyes, looking at what they need to do to excel in their own jobs, in the company, even in the industry. Get to know both what your manager needs to accomplish and what motivates him or her–that is, what they really want. These questions can help:

  • How does your boss define your role and the rest of the team’s in terms of his own position? Where are the weak spots and gaps?
  • What tasks is she required to complete each day, week, quarter?
  • How does he relate to his own bosses, you, your entire team?
  • What does he or she value most–time, influence, getting promoted quickly, being known as an innovator?
  • Can you sense what worries him most?
  • What is he trying to accomplish in the company?
  • What does he praise? Criticize?

Speak Your Manager’s Language

Once you have a clear picture of your manager, you will be able to assess what kind of actions will make the most impact on his success. The next step is to understand how he likes to communicate. To successfully manage up, you have to speak your manager’s language.

If he or she likes to communicate face-to-face rather than through email updates, then set up short meetings. A micro-manager? Give him the details he needs so he doesn’t worry that something isn’t getting done. If being known throughout the company is important, support their networking efforts and get involved in interdepartmental projects and activities.

If you’re lucky, your style and your manager’s will align. I once had a boss who never asked me about the status of current projects. He wanted to brainstorm about future ones. Once I understood that, every time I saw him I’d give him an idea or two I’d been thinking about. And when he left the company, he recommended that I take over his job.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and iVillage.com, among others.