3 Tips to Help You "Manage Your Manager"

Effective upward management involves far more than "kissing up to your boss."

Posted Sep 04, 2020

A great deal has written about people managing those who are below them in an organization, but there's considerably less focus on the notion of managing those above you.

Yet the concept of "upward management"—the idea of communicating effectively to your own boss to exert a positive influence in the relationship, is a valuable one. What employee doesn't want to feel they're not just controlled by their manager, but have some degree of control as well? 

 Icons8 Team / Unsplash
Taking time to understand your boss's problems can help your own career.
Source: Icons8 Team / Unsplash

My own observation is that, during a long career in management, many of the most successful individuals I knew were adept at upward management. By this, I don't mean simply "kissing up to their boss," as such obsequious behavior is often described, but relating to their boss in a way that made them genuinely respected and valued. Which naturally positively impacted the whole relationship.

Here are three tips to help you "manage your manager." 

1. Try to understand what keeps him (or her) up at night.

In other words, try to understand the business issues they're wrestling with, the intransigent problems that aren't easily resolved. Get to know them, so you have a sense of the world they're dealing with, and how you can assist. The issues often may not be what you think they are.

For example, I once reported to an executive who appeared supremely confident, who could present effectively to an audience the size of a small Midwestern town. Yet the better I got to know her, the more I realized that beneath the polished exterior she was surprisingly insecure and by no means certain she could deliver the day-to-day results her own very demanding management required. So I saw that anything I could do to help her keep her sizable operations on fundamentally solid footing would be highly valued. The more you understand your boss, the better positioned you are to advance your own career.

2. Bring solutions, not problems.

While employees may often have a narrow job function, a hallmark of management is multi-tasking: many things to do and not enough hours to do them. They are frequently beleaguered by vexing problems. In such an environment, the last thing managers want are more problems.

Of course, problems invariably occur in the normal course of business. But how you position these issues can be a difference-maker. To the extent possible, think of solutions, not just problems.

For instance, let's say to your dismay you've just discovered your department looks like it's going $25,000 over budget. Well, you could agitatedly walk into your boss's office and say, "OMG, it looks like we're going to be $25,000 over budget—we're totally screwed!" But chances are, this approach will do nothing so much as raise blood pressure and conflict.

A wiser approach would be to give the issue considerable thought before taking it to your boss, and outlining constructive ways to address the mess: "It looks like we're going to be $25,000 over budget for Project X, which is a potentially serious problem, but if we take $15,000 from Project Y and $10,000 from Project Z, both of which are currently running under budget, we should be able to keep things in balance." Management appreciates predictability... and avoiding crises and keeping business on an even keel.

3. Make yourself indispensable.

The more valuable you are, the more leverage you'll have. If you're truly serious about your career, it's well worth the time to learn not only about the narrower confines of your own job, but also about the broader environment of your business. Whatever that may be—whether it's jet planes, life insurance, or a small restaurant—the more you understand the "guts of the engine" in terms of what makes an operation successful, the more ways you'll be able to provide value to it.

Capable management is normally impressed by initiative (at least it sure should be), by employees who want to expand their roles and help out wherever needed. Employees who become indispensable should find themselves treated well, or at least better, and rather than just being managed will often have an active role in the decision-making process. 

To summarize, upward management involves far more than "kissing up" to your boss. It involves developing an in-depth understanding of what your boss and your organization need, and helping them deliver it.