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Along with managing your subordinates, for real success you also have to manage your boss. In other words, you have to "manage up." According to Thomas Zuber and Erika James, "managing up is the process of consciously working with your boss to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss and your organization. This is not political maneuvering or "kissing up." Rather, it is a deliberate effort to bring understanding and cooperation to a relationship between individuals who often have different perspectives." Managing the boss is a way to have a win-win-win situation where everyone, including the organization, wins. Failure to manage your boss frequently results in misunderstandings about expectations and causes wasted time and effort on tasks not in line with organizational goals or needs. And looking at it from a purely selfish perspective, career progress rarely happens if you don't manage your boss successfully.


As a manager at any level, though, you have to think about managing both up and down. Some managers only manage in one direction. If you only manage up, your subordinates will assume you don't care about them and may withhold their respect or slack off in their work. On the other hand, if you only manage down, you can't advocate for your team or gain buy-ins from others up the chain for your team's endeavors. Successful managers pay attention to managing both directions.

Guidelines for Managing Up

Most guidelines in this article are related to communication. Good communications skills are the basis for being able to succeed in almost every situation.

Communicate - and make sure the communication is two-way. Communication with the boss can be verbal or written. Some bosses are "readers", meaning they prefer to receive information in written form. Others are "listeners", meaning they prefer to their information verbally. Listeners need to hear the information first, then they can consume a written version. Readers want the story on paper first so that they have some time to digest and understand the issue before meeting to discuss it. If you want your ideas to be heard, understood and acted upon, make it easy for your boss by communicating in the manner with which he is most comfortable and therefore, best willing to receive the information that you want to transmit. You'll be meeting your boss's needs as well as your own. But make sure that the communication is two-way - you have to understand what he wants and his decisions. Listen and ask questions if you aren't sure. Then it is a good idea to feed it back to him to confirm that you got it right.

Don't surprise the boss. Even good surprises can backfire on you. Most people can cite examples of bringing the boss what they thought was good news, only to find out that it that it wasn't so good after all. Let him (or her) know what is happening on a regular basis so that he can brief his boss. It may be a quick meeting in his office; a daily, weekly or monthly e-mail; or some other exchange. Formal meetings to discuss the status on a regular schedule can help make sure that neither of you is surprised.

Provide solutions, not problems. There are going to be problems. Every office or project has them. But when you let your boss know about those problems, give him your proposed solution(s). Frequently, providing options and a recommended solution is the best way. That shows him that you have thought it through.

Some supervisors seem to only want to hear good news; they don't want to hear about problems. These bosses represent a particular challenge. It is up to you to help your boss face problems head on with courage and innovation. For the good of the organization, you must communicate problems and failures with the successes, but do so delicately and appropriately. That is when providing proposed solutions with the problems can really pay off.

Be honest, trustworthy and loyal. Dishonesty, covering up problems or failures, and trying to sweep things under the rug will only hurt you and the organization in the long run. The truth will come out eventually. Bad news doesn't get any better with age. A key element in managing your boss is building trust by being trustworthy. Most people are dependable, hardworking and have a desire to do a good job, but because of misunderstandings or mismatched priorities, some end up inappropriately labeled as "problem children." To keep the label off of your back, maintain your honesty and dependability. One way is honoring commitments, schedules, constraints and due dates. Overall, honest and forthright communication is best.

He is your boss - you owe him your loyalty and commitment and he owes you his support. If you don't do your part, chances are that he won't do his. That is bad for everyone concerned.

Understand your boss's perspective, priorities and agenda. You need to understand who your boss is and what he wants. In other words, put yourself in his shoes. While many people think that they have an understanding of their bosses' goals and pressures, they don't always understand the strengths, weaknesses, aspirations and work styles of their supervisors, or the pressures and constraints on them. Exploring these will help you identify commonalities you never knew existed and gain a little insight on how to better interact effectively with your boss.

Conform to your boss's preferences. If he wants a daily report on what has been accomplished, give it to him. If he wants the big picture and not the details, give it to him that way. If he wants something in a specific format, give it to him. That doesn't mean that you can't try to show him a better way. Just remember that tact and diplomacy are needed. If you get crosswise with your boss, even over something minor, you may never be able to undo the damage.

Set realistic expectations together. With your boss, you need to set realistic expectations (what he expects of you and your people). That includes expectations on schedule, costs, and products. The accent there is on "realistic". Don't set them too high or you will ruin your credibility when they are not met. Don't intentionally set them low. That won't help you either.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is to assume you know what your boss expects. Many bosses don't spell out their expectations, and the burden of discovery falls to you. If he doesn't give you the information that you need, initiate one or a series of informal discussions on "our objectives". This can help your boss clarify and communicate his ideas, plans and needs to you and gives you the chance to communicate your own ideas as well.

Learn your boss's strengths and use them, but selectively. Whether those strengths are communication, seeing the big picture, resource management, new ideas, or something else, lean on your boss for his expertise. Get him to use those skills for your project. Remember though, time is a precious commodity for most managers. Effectively managing your boss requires that you respect his time. Every request made of the boss uses up his time and resources, so make sure your requests are necessary. Use his strengths, but if you can do it yourself, don't waste his time. He might resent your demands if they aren't necessary or label you as weak and needy.

Compensate for your boss's weaknesses. He is not going to be good at everything. It is up to you to figure out where he is weak and provide your support in those areas. You might just want to intentionally try doing something to make his life easier. Maybe you can assist by building the slides for his briefings, tracking the finances, monitoring the schedule, or providing the support that he needs in some other area. Perhaps your boss will spend that extra time or effort that you saved him to advocate for your team's needs.

Watch for his "hot buttons." What are your manager's hot buttons or pet peeves? Is it being late to meetings, incorrect spelling and grammar, swearing, or not contributing at meetings? Whatever they are, consider them land mines to be avoided. Ignoring them (or even not understanding them) can sour your relationship with the boss. That can mean an unsuccessful project because you didn't get the support that you needed or even career suicide for you.

Request feedback - and accept it. Feedback can be a wonderful gift if you can learn from it. Request periodic feedback if you aren't getting it. Don't wait for the annual appraisal to find out his opinion of you and your work. If you get bad feedback, discuss your concerns, but do it on a mature level. Don't do it emotionally, defensively or confrontationally. You need to carry out the discussion of your concerns in a non-adversarial way. Like a marriage, you should try to handle your complaints in a manner that does not do further damage to your relationship. And listen to what he says and try to act on it.

Don't go over the boss's head or behind his back. That is not the way to manage up! Doing so can permanently ruin your relationship with the boss. Go to him first. If it is something very serious and he does nothing, you might have to go over his head. In some cases he may be the serious problem and you can't confront him. Going over his head should be a last resort and be for things like:

  • Your project is on the line and there is an urgent problem that your manager continues to ignore.
  • Your boss is doing something illegal.
  • Your boss has a serious physical illness, mental illness, or drug addiction.
  • Your boss is doing something that could lead to a lawsuit and/or bad publicity (e.g., sexual harassment or accounting irregularities).

Be very careful with these matters. Keep the information highly confidential, only discussing it with someone who needs to know. Document your conversation with that person in an e-mail or memo for the record, and save a copy for yourself. Remember too that you could be mistaken.

"[Managing up] sounds simple, but managers, and everyone else, need to learn this basic concept," says Richard L. Knowdell, author of "Building a Career Development Program: Nine Steps for Effective Implementation". "If we want someone to understand what we have to say, we must learn to speak their language, rather than to expect them to learn ours." By learning your boss's "language" you can accomplish what you need, help the boss succeed, and make the organization more successful.

Too many people perceive that managing up is brownnosing or trying to curry favor from the boss. It's not. Is it manipulative? Not really. Being rebellious, adversarial or stonewalling the boss is not going to get you anywhere but in hot water. Just "doing your job" might work, but isn't being successful a part of "doing your job"? And managing up is one of the tools to engender success.

2006 (c) Wayne Turk

About the Author:

Wayne Turk is an independent management consultant with Suss Consulting. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and defense contractor. He has supported information technology projects, policy development and strategic planning projects for DoD, other federal agencies, and non-profit organizations. He is a frequently published author in the fields of management and project management.

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