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Leadership Effectiveness: Managing Up

Updated: Mar 3, 2021

Early in my career I remember complaining at a happy hour about my boss. The person next to me was a colleague of one of my friends and we didn’t know each other well. After listening to me vent for about 15 minutes (what patience!), she asked me the following questions:

  • “What pressure is your boss under?” I had no idea.

  • “What is your boss really good at?” Um. No clue.

  • “What are his career goals? What motivates him?” Nope.

I found her questions obscure and I was annoyed that she wasn’t focusing on me and how my boss wasn’t supporting me. Then, her next comment flat-out confused me, “Amy, it sounds like you need to manage up. The only way to do that is if you know him really well.”

Manage up? Back then, I had never heard of it.

Now, after having been in senior leadership roles as well as studying and teaching leadership development, I now understand that managing up, or working with your boss to get the best results, is one of the most important and also misunderstood leadership skills.

It’s not about “managing” your boss, such as having supervisory control over them. This is important to understand. I have seen many bosses become uncomfortable with the concept. “What? My team is going to ‘manage’ me?” No.

Here are a couple definitions:

This article will provide two techniques for managing up. The first is likely the most important: Know your boss, know yourself, and adapt. The second is about disagreeing with your boss productively.

Know your boss

This is probably the most important aspect of managing up-knowing your boss well. Here are some questions to consider:

  1. When is your boss at their best? What are they doing?

  2. What stresses them? What annoys them?

  3. What is their scope of responsibility? What pressure are they under? What impact does their boss have on them?

  4. How do they like to receive information? Bullets point or more explanation?

  5. Are they process focused and like to know all the steps you take? Or are they results focused and prefer to not know detail, just the result?

Understanding the answers to these questions helps you craft the best way to work with your boss.

For example, as a former Operations Chief, I preferred emails to be concise and decisions to be made quickly. A new executive, Phil, was hired to lead our department and after two months of working together I became frustrated. I struggled to get a decision from him. I would send an email and get no response. He would then set up a meeting two or three days later, we would discuss, and then I would get a decision 24 hours later. It was the slowest decision-making I had experienced.

It wasn’t until one of Phil’s former direct reports, Julie, came to work on our team did I learn that Phil preferred to read a memo. He liked memo-format emails with a full explanation and background of the issue. He did not prefer to have that information spoken to him, rather he wanted to read it. If he got all the information in a memo, Phil would decide quickly.

When Julie shared this with me, I immediately laughed at how ridiculous my bullet-point emails must look to Phil. Then, I was annoyed at the notion of having to write a memo for any decision I needed but I gave it a try.

Julie was right. When Phil received about 1-2 pages of explanation and background, he decided quickly. Certainly, my writing and formulation of the problem was critical to this, but I got better at it over time. End to end, the process was still faster than the email, meeting/discussion, 24 hour wait that I had been previously experiencing.

What if you don’t know your boss well and don’t know the answers to those questions? Ask. Schedule some time say “I’d like to learn more about you and your work. Can we take 20 minutes for you to share with me the following…” And provide the questions in advance. You can also talk to others who know your boss well to share their perspective.

The point is to understand your boss well, understand how that compares or contrasts with your own style, and adapt to your boss accordingly.

Disagree Productively

Inevitably you will disagree with your boss and the way that is handled can make or break your success. Just as you are exploring your boss’s work style and pressures, talk about disagreement too. At minimum, pay attention to how they respond to disagreement. Adapting your style to theirs is important.

With the teams I work with, I advocate that they discuss disagreement and define a process for it before they ever disagree. The leader of the team can initiate this or anyone on the team. That way, everyone knows what to do when disagreement comes up. In fact, I wrote a post on it. See further explanation here: Your Team Needs Conflict.

If you don’t have a process for it and disagreement comes up, here are some tips:

Prepare in advance: Think through your position and why it is important to you. What are you trying to accomplish and how does that align with the goals your boss has? Look for a common goal.

State your intent first. Make it clear to your boss that you are on the same team and striving toward the same goal. It might sound like: “I don’t want you to think I’m questioning your decision. I want you to know you have my support.”

Ask for their perspective. Seek out their goal or what they are trying to accomplish. Get a full picture of their intent before you share yours. It might sound like: “Can you tell me more about your perspective? What contributed to your decision? What is influencing it?”

Share your perspective and offer a solution: State your side, speaking only from your perspective. Be specific and offer a possible solution. It might sound like. “From my side, the new sections in the policy, C and D, will increase our workload. I fear that we will not be able to achieve the goal we defined. I have an idea that may help.”

Developing and maintaining a productive relationship with your boss is not only important for your own performance and job satisfaction but for theirs as well. Get to know your boss well. You don’t have to get personal, rather focus on how they work, what made them the leader they are today, etc. Then, start learning to adapt your style to theirs. It will pay off in the end.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.

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