Doesn’t our boss have to manage us?
Why do we have to manage our manager?
The term “managing up” may seem like an overused cliche management term, but there’s a lot of magic from improving your ability to manage up.
Look, you have goals that you want and need to accomplish in your role. Your ability to accomplish them determines the trajectory of your career. If you have an amazing manager, they’re supporting you, coaching you, and helping clear roadblocks along the way. Great managers help us achieve our goals.
But let’s be honest, most managers aren’t great managers.
And even for the great managers, we’re all human and have bad days.
If you adopt the mindset of “extreme ownership” and decide to manage up, your career will accelerate. You’ll hit your goals faster, you won’t be spread as thing, you’ll get promotions more frequently, you’ll get the hot projects, and you’ll have an easier time switching companies to even better roles.
What is Managing Up?
Managing up is the art of using management techniques on your own manager.
Things like goal setting, accountability, priority setting, all the typical manager stuff.
There’s one major difference.
Since we’re managing our manager, the execution is much different.
Even if a manager recognizes the value from being managed by their subordinates, it can be a major blow to their ego to admit it. While standard management techniques can be obvious and transparent, “managing up” tricks need to be much more subtle.
The best “managing up” tricks impact your manager without them realizing it. I never do this in a deceitful way, I smoothly integrate decisions into my regular day that help my manager adopt good management practices. This helps us both. I provide a few guardrails for my manager, they make the decisions that I need them to make in order to do my job better. It’s a win-win.
Managing Up has its Limits with Horrible Bosses
I’m about to share with you my best tips and tricks on how to manage up. For the vast majority of managers, these tricks work beautifully.
There are some managers that these won’t work on: the boss from hell.
Some managers are so horrible that nothing really works on them. They’re too demanding, too mean, or actual sociopaths. In these cases, managing up is more about damage control and taking the edge off than it is improving your career.
If you find yourself in this situation, I recommend putting your energy into switching teams or companies. Do whatever it takes to find a new boss. Then your ”managing up” skills will have a much bigger impact once you’re working for a reasonable boss.
Set the Board In Your Favor With Updates
Let’s say we sit down to play a game of chess.
Before we start, I tell you that there’s going to be a change of rules. I get to set the board however I like. I can place both your pieces and mine anywhere on the board.
Would you want to play?
Of course not! I’d have a ridiculous advantage and would win every single game. It would be terribly unfair.
The lesson is that whoever gets to set the board wins.
In our jobs, we also have a chance to set the board. We do this during our weekly updates. Weekly updates to your boss may feel like busy-work but they hold an immense amount of power.
Your updates are a chance for you to get your boss thinking about anything you want and set the board. Set it right and you can get extra resources, a larger team, new tools, better goals, support with unblocking items across the organization, whatever you need.
Early in my career, I used to go into my 1:1s with my boss without an agenda. I went in cold. Guess what happened? I came out of the meeting stressed from a whole extra list of tasks to complete and no extra support on anything I needed. My boss ran the agenda and I struggled to keep up. She also assumed that I had everything I needed since I wasn’t asking for anything. Hence all the extra work.
Later on, I started preparing agendas and everything changed. My manager saw all the progress I was making, knew where I needed help, often gave help in those areas, and gave me room to breathe.
By taking the initiative and setting the board, my day-to-day completely changed.
Here are a few tips that I use to set the board during my weekly updates:
- For progress updates, focus on tangible improvements that have been made over the past week. This builds trust with your manager, they’ll know everything is moving forward and won’t be as inclined to meddle as often.
- Bring up challenges in advance. If you think someone might quit your team for example, bring it up, suggest a plan if it does happen, and get their feedback. Then if it does happen, your manager won’t be surprised at all. You’ll have turned a horrible event into just an ordinary day.
- Preview plans with your manager before they need to be finalized. For any major project that you’re working on, put a draft in front of them and ask for major concerns. Your goal is to get deal-breakers out in the open so you can address them before the final approval.
- Call out specific tasks that your manager has to complete. This one can be a bit tricky, the best managers are masters at delegation and avoiding tasks. Make the tasks easy to complete, ultra-specific, and only ask for the stuff you desperately need. Also get them to confirm that they’ll complete the task. Then keep following up with them until it’s done. This is how you get the help that you need.
Use the “This or That” Decision to Cut Down on Stress
In previous roles, it also seemed like I would be making great progress by cranking through a critical project.
Then my manager would walk over.
“Hey, uhh, can you get this other thing done?”
Then I’d have a problem. Not only was I pressed for time on my critical project, but I also have another random task that I had to get done. My stress went up, I worked longer hours, and I got closer to burnout just to make my manager happy.
I found a hack to get these requests to go away. Whenever a manager asks me to do something I respond with this simple script:
“Absolutely, I’d love to. I’m currently heads down on Project X and am pushing to get it done by Date Y. Do you want me to push that back to handle this other project or stay focused on it?”
Most of the time, when a manager assigns a random project, they don’t have the full picture of what that new project will cost. By giving them a quick choice on which is most important, you’ll avoid over-burdening yourself and keep your boss happy at the same time.
Try not to over-use this one though. As a manager, it gets annoying when you ask for something small and then suddenly get into a negotiation on priorities. I try to only use this trick on substantive projects that I know will take a decent amount of time. For requests that only take 15-30 minutes, I simply take care of it and use them as an opportunity to build goodwill with my manager.
Build Trust By Always Having Action Steps With Bad News
Sooner or later, we all have bad news that we need to give our manager.
Could be a failed goal. Could be a delayed project.
Even if we do everything right, we all have a spat of bad luck sooner or later.
Many managers will want to intervene during these periods which can cause even more problems. First, there’s a chance that you interpret their instructions incorrectly and go in a different direction. Second, their plan might be a path that doesn’t play to your execution strengths. Third, your manager usually doesn’t have the full picture and could be missing a critical detail.
You want to implement your plan, not the plan that’s imposed on your by your manager.
To avoid a situation where your manager overrides everything, always have next steps prepared when conveying bad news.
Here is a basic script that I usually follow:
“The project has been delayed. Here are steps 1, 2, and 3 that we’re taking to shorten the delay as much as possible. We’ve also identified the root cause to be X so this never happens again. Is there anything else that you’d like me to implement?”
In most cases, your manager will approve all your action steps, give you a couple of pieces of advice, and then get out of your way. Assuming that you do correctly find the root cause and prevent it from happening again, you’ll get through the problem with even more trust from you manager since you handled it so smoothly.
Adopt Your Manager’s Goals So You’re Always Driving Real Value
Your boss has their own goals.
To find ways that increase your impact and value on the team, ask yourself “how can I move those goals forward?”
Yes, your manager has goals that are much bigger than you’re used to, that’s why they’re the manager. But you can still adopt the mindset of moving part of that goal forward in some way.
Let’s say your manager has a goal of doing $5 million in revenue this year. Is there a $1 million in revenue that you can have a major impact on? If so, drive that. Communicate everything you’re doing around that $1 million, frame all your updates in terms of hitting that revenue goal.
When your manager sees you driving their goal forward, your manager will then:
- Stay out of your way because they don’t want to jeopardize your priorities.
- Give you the benefit of the doubt on smaller projects. As long as the big stuff is taken care of, the small stuff will get ignored.
- Readily give you resources, tools, and any other support you need in order to hit your goals.
Goal setting is a really hard skill, much harder than we appreciate until we’ve been managing teams for a long time. So in all likelihood, the initial goals that you’re given aren’t that great. I always like to ask my manager what their goals are and then propose a goal for myself that directly moves the larger goal forward.
This will help you avoid any “winning the battle but losing the war” situations. If there are tough times and roles get eliminated or programs cut, the odds of losing your own role go down dramatically. You’re already making a direct impact on company priorities.