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- Managing up is an important skill that improves business outcomes and benefits your career, whether you’re early career or a senior director.
- Managers need input from their team members in order to succeed.
- At its simplest, managing up is about proactive communication. But in more complex scenarios, there are specific tactics you can use.
People often have the mistaken belief that managing up is only necessary when you have a “bad” boss. The truth is, all managers need an employee’s insight at times. A manager with a collaborative style may reach out for it more often. But even they won’t always know what they don’t know.
So how can we manage up in a way that’s honest, productive, and professional?
In some cases, the answer is straightforward. “The simplest method of managing up is proactively communicating,” says Mike Krupit, founder and lead coach of leadership consulting company Trajectify. “Nine times out of ten, that’s all you need to do. They didn’t know. You inform them. Now they know.”
You may also go a step further and offer advice. “Tell them why you can’t meet your goal … and make a recommendation,” suggests Krupit. “People say don’t come with problems, come with solutions, right? Now you’re not just making them aware, you’re also giving them options.”
But what about those 10% of situations where informing and advising isn’t quite enough?
Long before he was named a “Most Admired CEO” by the Philadelphia Business Journal, Krupit was a developer working a 9-5 job who had to learn how to manage up from the trenches. Today, in addition to providing strategic business consulting, Krupit regularly works with what he calls “high potential leaders” to help them meet their goals, which often involves managing up.
What is managing up?
Managing up is successfully influencing the decision-makers you report to — most frequently, your boss. “It is a negotiation process, even though it may not look like one in practice,” says Krupit.
Negotiating can be intimidating, especially when you’re new to it, but it’s also a key part of career growth. A recent study by McKinsey shows that managing up and over (to your colleagues) increases both business impact and personal career success, even more so than just managing subordinates.
When managing a manager, “You’re trying to influence an action or a decision,” Krupit says. “You have to know who you’re negotiating with, assess what drives them, and understand how to speak to them on their own terms.” (He often encourages people to read one of the well-known negotiation books, like Getting to Yes and Never Split the Difference, to get a primer on the art of negotiating.)
How to manage your manager in 6 common scenarios
1. A boss who’s skeptical of new ideas
Influencing someone who’s resistant to others’ ideas can be particularly challenging.
“I had a boss like that,” says Krupit. “If you disagreed with him, you would get a three page email on why he was right and you were wrong.”
For Krupit, success depended on getting his idea to become his boss’s idea. “One might call that manipulative,” he admits. “It was the only way in that case, and it was highly effective.”
It’s not an easy skill to build, and it’ll take some practice. Krupit likens it to the discovery questioning he uses in his coaching work. “I lead them to the same conclusion I got, perhaps through the process I went through to get there, but without revealing that I know the answer already,” he says.
2. A hands-off boss
Your boss’s absenteeism probably has everything to do with their being overwhelmed and nothing to do with avoiding you. This is the perfect time to take initiative.
“I was coaching a high potential leader at a company, and he couldn’t get time with his boss,” Krupit says. The employee’s requests for a meeting went unanswered. “I told him to go to his boss’s calendar and put an appointment on it.” It worked. His boss met with him.
If you must take action before you get a response from your boss, Krupit recommends making a paper trail of your requests and how you made your decision. Hopefully you’ll never have to use it, but it shows accountability.
3. A boss you don’t agree with
If your boss makes a decision you don’t agree with, ask yourself one question: does it affect me personally? If the decision is about your personal or professional development, you may choose to circle back with new research or a new argument.
If it doesn’t directly affect you, then it might be time to step back. As hard as it is to swallow, the decision wasn’t yours to make.
“If your boss is consultative or collaborative, they will have asked you,” says Krupit. “If they ultimately make a decision that you wouldn’t have, they’re accountable for it. That’s their job.”
If your boss didn’t ask or you didn’t give your insight before the decision was made, commit to influencing the outcome next time.
4. Multiple managers
Whether you have multiple supervisors or you’re dealing with a board of directors, you’re faced with a strategic decision: address each person individually or approach them as a group?
Krupit recommends addressing them in unison when you can. If you’re expecting contention among the individuals, you may consider doing some pregaming to answer important questions without being derailed by naysayers. “Warm up the ones you think may be leaning in your favor and increase your chance of success when the issue is brought before the group,” Krupit says.
What if you have multiple supervisors who send conflicting messages?
Krupit still recommends a joint approach. Explain that you’re getting mixed messages and would like to spend the time to come up with a singular direction for you to follow. Honesty and authenticity are your best bet.
5. A boss who’s struggling to make decisions
Being accountable for big decisions can create fear in even the best managers.
If your boss is struggling to make a decision, come with a plan. Tell them why your decision is a smart or safe one. And if you really want to be successful, Krupit says, “Offer to share in the accountability for it.”
6. A brand-new boss
If someone’s brand new, they need information – and you likely have it. Offering them your insights and encouraging them to ask you questions can make you an invaluable resource.
Of course, you have to be authentic. “You can’t go in and try to manipulate them, giving them your personal perspective because you want them to make a decision in your favor,” says Krupit. Show them multiple sides of the issue and explain why your decision is the best one.
How not to manage up
No matter what outcome you’re hoping for, don’t resort to shame.
Krupit has frequently seen employees form a coalition to try to shame their manager about a decision. “Sometimes it works if your manager responds to pressure. But when it doesn’t work, it hurts you,” warns Krupit. “You look bad. You’ve got a tougher time managing up because you’ve lost their trust.”
Remember to take the long view. If you can manage up and make your boss look and feel good in the process, they’ll be more likely to listen to your counsel the next time around.
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