Managing Up for Organizational Success

The term “managing up” encapsulates the idea that an employee can become virtually indispensable to an organization by nourishing and strengthening their relationship with their manager. Such an employee makes their manager’s life easier by solving problems, translating the manager’s thinking and work style into everyday decision-making, and making contributions to the organization that reflect the manager’s perspective. The employee also benefits from the harmonious relationship with their manager, and the organization benefits from the enhanced productivity from both individuals. 

Anyone skilled at managing up applies the tools of good management to their own work. In effect, these employees manage themselves to draw out their own best performance while supporting their boss—all with an eye toward fulfilling the goals and vision of the organization. Managing up is a critical skill at any time, but it’s particularly important when the employee has a new manager.

Managing up does not imply managing an incompetent or difficult boss, or manipulating a manager to achieve one’s own narrow ends. Nor does it imply blind obedience or office politicking. When done right, managing up adds measurable value to an organization and makes everyone’s work easier. Everyone benefits: the employee, the manager, and the organization.

Optimizing an organization

Employees who excel at managing up are able to read and even anticipate their manager’s needs and concerns, bringing solutions instead of problems and helping the boss manage circumstances to achieve optimum outcomes even in challenging times. They are able to become genuine agents for positive change at all levels of an organization because they can see pieces of the picture as well as bigger patterns. They offer advice that they know will be valuable to their manager individually and to the organization.

Managing up is an art, rather than an exact science. A combination of professional expertise, high-level communication skills, knowledge of human behavior and interpersonal dynamics, and sheer old-fashioned insight and wisdom all enter into it. 

Managing up while managing down

Employees who manage up also need to guard against a few pitfalls. For one thing, although they will be aligning themselves closely with their manager, they can’t forget to also “manage down.” Processes, procedures, and plans need attention at the granular level so that they continue to function well, and an employee’s direct reports also need to feel that they are heard and respected, and that their work is vital to moving the organization forward.

Following the leader’s lead

To manage up successfully, an employee needs skills in a few key areas. First, they need to align with their manager’s work style and preferences. For example, some managers prefer to be given very wide overviews of an issue, while others want minutely detailed reports. Some are all about numbers and data, while others are looking for descriptions of context and ideas. 

Once the employee learns their manager’s preferred work style, it’s important to also match their communication style. Whether that involves daily emails on detailed topics, or less-frequent general summaries, understanding and respecting the manager’s communication style shows respect for these preferences, reduces friction, and ensures greater congruence between manager and employee. The best way for employees to discern their manager’s communication style is simply to observe and ask.

Honesty and openness in communicating with a manager likewise are at the core of this skill. While the employee isn’t “coaching” the manager per se, the employee should provide feedback on what is or isn’t working.

Other fine points of managing up

One particularly tried-and-true tip for managing up is to never surprise a manager. Even if a manager prefers to receive less frequent updates on projects, keep them informed about any risks likely to generate problems or setbacks. That way, the manager can maintain a clear picture of where the project is and be prepared to deal with any issues. The manager can also demonstrate their own command of the issues by communicating them to their own manager, in turn.  

Saying “no” to a manager may seem counterintuitive, but it’s another essential component of managing up. It’s important to say “yes” to the mission-critical issues that really matter to a manager, and to embrace their goals and measurements of success. At the same time, an employee who manages up well can help their team—or even the entire organization—by being frank about unrealistic project budget and time constraints.

It’s helpful to have this discussion with a manager in advance; a “no” during a big meeting can lead to consternation and embarrassment. Instead, speak with the manager beforehand and explain the concerns.

This kind of conscious focus on achieving mutually defined and agreed-on goals is the essence of managing up. It builds long-term productivity into the relationship between manager and employee, and draws out the complementary strengths of both to achieve a whole that is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.