In the intricate hierarchy of the work environment, the relationship between an employee and their leader is pivotal. It’s a dynamic that needs to be nurtured to ensure that both parties get what they need; but it isn’t always a positive partnership. There is no question that it’s in the employee’s interest to steer this relationship in a manner that not only makes the work day more enjoyable - but also aligns with their professional trajectory.

The leader may be the one with the power in the relationship, but that doesn’t mean employees should be idle passengers in their own career journey. The concept of ‘managing up’ is not about manipulation or being disrespectful; but rather, it is a strategic approach to fostering a productive working relationship with your superior.

Why is this important? A harmonious rapport with your boss can lead to an enhanced understanding of organisational objectives, clearer communication, and more effective collaboration. It is about aligning your work ethic and initiatives with the expectations and priorities of your leader. This alignment is essential for not only meeting - but exceeding workplace goals and advancing one’s career. Managing your boss might sound like a daunting task, but it’s a crucial skill for career growth and workplace harmony.

So, what does ‘managing up’ mean?

‘Managing up’ is a workplace strategy where employees take the initiative to foster a productive relationship with their supervisors or managers. It involves understanding the leader’s goals, working style, and expectations, and then aligning one’s work and communication to support their leader’s success whilst meeting individual employee needs. It is about having the courage to flag when things are not working and steering managers towards a style or approach that works best for you.

8 practical strategies to ‘manage up’

1. Take the time to understand your boss

Before you attempt any tactics, take the time to understand your boss. What are their goals and objectives? What pressures do they face? What are their strengths and weaknesses? By gaining insights into their working context, you’ll be better equipped to tailor your approach. Remember, effective management starts with empathy and understanding.

2. Don’t Try to Be a Transformer

Accept that your boss is human—just like you—with both strengths and limitations. Rather than trying to reform them, focus on building on their strengths. Consider how you can complement their abilities. If your boss excels at strategic thinking, collaborate on high-level planning. If they struggle with details, step in to handle the nitty-gritty. It’s about synergy, not transformation.

3. Build on Strengths

Identify your leader’s strengths and leverage them. Maybe they excel at networking, decision-making, or motivating teams. Align your efforts with their strong points. For instance, if your boss is a great communicator, ensure your messages resonate with their preferred style. By playing to their strengths, you create a more productive and harmonious partnership.

4. Focus Strengths on What Matters

Not all tasks are equal. Help your leader channel their strengths toward critical priorities. If they’re excellent at relationship-building, encourage them to engage with key stakeholders. If they’re data-driven, involve them in strategic analysis. By aligning their strengths with high-impact areas, you’ll both achieve better results.

5. Find Out What Works

Observe what resonates with your leader. Do they prefer concise emails or face-to-face discussions? Are they motivated by recognition or autonomy? Adapt your communication and collaboration style accordingly. Remember, it’s not about changing who you are; it’s about tailoring your approach to their preferences.

6. Build Your Relationship

Invest time in building a positive rapport. Regular check-ins, active listening, and genuine interest in their well-being go a long way. Understand their workstyle—whether they appreciate detailed updates or prefer a big-picture overview. A strong relationship fosters trust and open communication.

7. Avoid Overload and Time Wasting

Be assertive about your workload. If your boss consistently piles on tasks, discuss priorities and boundaries. Respectfully decline when necessary, explaining your existing commitments. Also, guard against time-wasting meetings. Suggest efficient alternatives or propose agendas that focus on actionable outcomes.

8. Build a Bigger Network

Expand your professional network beyond your immediate team. Connect with colleagues, industry peers, and mentors. A broader network provides alternative perspectives and resources. Plus, when you encounter challenges with your manager, you’ll have a support system to turn to.

3 common scenarios when ‘managing up’ is beneficial

You might be reading this wondering when and how you would apply these techniques. The following includes 3 common scenarios where ‘managing up’ is warranted.  Applying these techniques can turn around a challenging manager-employee relationship:

1. The Micromanager

The Challenge: Sam felt stifled by her boss, John, who was a notorious micromanager. His constant oversight and lack of trust stifled her creativity and left her feeling demotivated and frustrated.

Managing Up Strategy: Sam began by understanding John’s concerns and fears about the projects. She proactively provided detailed updates and sought his input on her tasks. Over time, she built trust by consistently delivering quality work and demonstrating her reliability.

The Turnaround: As trust grew, John began to step back, giving Sam more autonomy. Their relationship improved, and Sam was able to take on more significant projects with less direct oversight.

2. The Disconnected Boss

The Challenge: Shree’s boss, Elizabeth, was always busy and seemed disconnected from the team’s day-to-day challenges. This led to misaligned priorities and frustration.

Managing Up Strategy: Shree took the initiative to schedule regular check-ins with Elizabeth to discuss team progress and hurdles. He prepared concise reports to keep her informed and sought her strategic input.

The Turnaround: These meetings helped Elizabeth stay connected with the team’s work and provided her with insights to make better decisions. Shree’s efforts were recognised, and he became a key liaison between Elizabeth and the team.

3.The Under-Pressure Boss

The Challenge: Isaac’s boss, Alex, was under immense pressure to deliver results, which often resulted in a tense work environment and last-minute demands.

Managing Up Strategy: Isaac anticipated Alex’s needs and took on tasks before being asked. He also suggested process improvements to streamline work and reduce stress.

The Turnaround: Alex appreciated Isaac’s proactive approach, which not only helped ease his workload but also improved the team’s performance. Their relationship evolved into a more collaborative and supportive one.

These examples highlight that by understanding your manager’s needs, communicating effectively, and demonstrating initiative, you can improve a difficult relationship. It is important to remember that ‘managing up’ isn’t just about making your leader’s job easier; it’s about generating a more productive and authentic work environment where small positive changes can foster a better work environment for everyone involved.

10 quick tips for when your efforts to ‘manage up’ aren’t being appreciated by your manager

If your efforts to manage up aren’t being appreciated by your leader, it can be disheartening, but there are steps you can take to address this situation:

  1. Seek Feedback: Have an open conversation with your leader about your efforts and ask for feedback. There may be a mismatch between your actions and their expectations or preferences.
  2. Evaluate Your Approach: Reflect on your managing up strategies. Are they aligned with your leader’s goals and work style? Adjust your approach based on their feedback and your own assessment.
  3. Set Boundaries: Ensure that your efforts to manage up don’t come across as overstepping boundaries. It’s important to maintain professional respect and not encroach on their responsibilities.
  4. Be Patient: Change takes time. Your manager might need more time to notice and appreciate your efforts. Continue to consistently demonstrate your value and commitment.
  5. Build Alliances: Sometimes, support from other team members or departments can influence your leader’s perception. Build positive relationships across the organisation so you are not purely reliant on one person’s actions or opinions.
  6. Focus on Results: Ensure that your efforts are leading to tangible results. Successes that can be quantified or clearly demonstrated may help your leader see the value of your contributions.
  7. Consider Organisational Culture: Sometimes, the issue may be rooted in the company’s culture. If managing up is not a common practice, it might be less likely to be recognised or valued.
  8. Professional Development: Continue to invest in your own professional growth. This can sometimes shift the dynamic in your relationship with your manager.
  9. Seek Mentorship: A mentor within the organisation can provide guidance on how to navigate the relationship with your leader and may offer insights into what might resonate with them.
  10. Reassess and escalate: If, despite your best efforts, your leader does not appreciate you managing up, it may be time to escalate to HR or a senior leader that can help to navigate the disconnect. Whilst most leaders have the right intent, there are some managers who have no interest in adjusting their style to optimise engagement and performance.

'Managing up' is a deliberate strategy

The act of managing up is a deliberate strategy that holds significant weight in an employee’s professional journey. It is a multifaceted skill that enhances the symbiotic relationship between an employee and their leader, fostering a climate of mutual respect and shared objectives. By effectively managing up, individuals not only demonstrate their commitment to the company’s vision but also position themselves as proactive contributors to their team’s success.

This nuanced skill transcends mere employee-manager dynamics and becomes a cornerstone of leadership development. As the world of work has evolved, it has become increasingly clear that ‘managing up’ is no longer a ‘nice to have’ skill; but rather an essential tool every employee must possess and have the courage to use.

Further information

Ai Group also offers a range of extensive training courses to support employees leaders on their development journey. For assistance with your workplace matters, Members of Ai Group can contact us or call our Workplace Advice Line on 1300 55 66 77 for further information.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior HR Content Editor – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.