Managing up is the process of working with the person you report to in order to set clear expectations, identify ways to improve outcomes, and to maximize the value of your relationship. It’s an intentional practice that empowers employees to build a strong working relationship with their boss. When done well, managing up is a win-win situation for you, your supervisor, and the organization as a whole. In fact, nearly 60 percent of Americans said they would do a better job at work if they got along better with their boss.

Here are some best practices to help you effectively manage up:

Keep open communication. Focus on listening well and asking questions when you’re speaking with the person you report to. Restate the information you hear to ensure it is correct. Keep your supervisor updated on the progress of projects you’re working on, so they are aware of any challenges you’re running into and can see that you’re meeting goals. Effective two-way communication, both verbal and written, is key to a strong manager-employee relationship.

Ask for feedback regularly. Effective feedback is bidirectional. When you meet with your supervisor, request feedback on things that you can do to help them in their job and the organization thrive as a whole. A good time to do this would be during those monthly one-on-one feedback meetings. Ask questions like: Is there anything else I could be doing to help the team or company?

Learn how to manage yourself. To effectively manage up, it’s crucial to know how to manage yourself first. This involves focusing on self-awareness by being attuned to how your working style impacts your supervisor and colleagues. Make adjustments to collaborate better with these people. Additionally, be open and respond positively to constructive criticism, and concentrate on projecting an image of reliability and trust in the workplace. 

Be proactive. Whether you’re an employee or organizational leader, it’s your responsibility to step up and build your relationship with the person you report to. Don’t just be a passive observer and wait for your manager to tell you what to do. Look for need and opportunity, and determine how you can fulfill it for your company. Show your colleagues that you want to help the business grow and prosper. This is one of the best ways to build credibility and support your co-workers and manager.

Invest in the relationship. The bottom line is that we’re all relational creatures who need validation, recognition, and feedback to thrive. It’s important to share your emotional experience with your supervisor and provide validation when they do a good job much like how they (hopefully) do for you. For example: It was great to hear such positive feedback from our customers when we finished that project for them. Thank you for all of your hard work to lead the project to success.

Offer solutions. If you have ideas that could benefit the workplace, your team, or how you get your work done, don’t hesitate to suggest them to your supervisor. Many times, your manager is head down in their work and may not have space to notice issues or create solutions to certain roadblocks. Be strategic in how you deliver your suggestions – what will grab their attention most effectively? Consider your delivery as well, and be careful not to come across as demanding, but rather offering suggestions to help the enterprise.

Managing Up When You Have a Toxic Boss

Managing up is a difficult responsibility, but it’s even more daunting when you have a toxic supervisor. In addition to the guidelines above, implement these strategies when you’re working with a difficult boss:

Ask for permission to discuss the situation. If your manager handled a situation poorly, it’s important to bring it to their attention in a non-punitive way. Calmly ask them for permission to talk about the situation. This enables you to open up dialogue about what happened in a productive manner.

Reference core values. Connect the situation to the organization’s values. Explain that the way your manager handled the situation didn’t seem to align with the company’s values and mission.

Additionally, if your personal values were violated, determine if it’s worth a conversation to see if an apology is in order and if this can be prevented in the future.

Share the impact that their negative behavior had. It’s essential for your manager to be someone you can count on in order to have a work environment that feels safe to be a part of. Be open and honest about how the way they handled the situation affected you, other employees, or the organization as a whole.

Managing up is a key skill for employees of every level to practice, and eventually, master. It strengthens the employee-manager relationship and creates a more positive work environment for staff and supervisors alike.

Key Takeaways:

  • Regardless of your role, it’s crucial to manage up to the person you report to in order to build a strong working relationship and keep projects and operations running smoothly.
  • Understanding yourself, being proactive, and investing in your relationship with your boss are all important steps to effectively managing up.
  • When you have a toxic boss, managing up can be especially difficult. However, keeping open lines of communication, referencing organizational values, and explaining the impact of the situation can help you create positive solutions.

Referenced resources:

Managing Up: Dynamic Following in an Organizational Setting, Barry K. Herman, MD, MMM, CPE, FACPE, American College of Physician Executives, The Physician Executive, January-February 2008.

The Art of Managing Up, Wayne Turk, Defense AT&L Magazine, March-April 2007.

The Work of Edward Tufte,

Would you like more tips on building a high-performance work culture? Read my book, Thrive By Design to learn the science behind cultivating an engaged workplace where your employees thrive.