Managing Upwards - Part 1

Tangent today on the topic of managing upwards. I've written many times about the many features and needs of leaders to manage people less senior -- particularly direct reports. What I haven't tackled head on is the requirement for even the newest, youngest employee to learn the art of managing up their food chain. It is a skill that requires cultivation, practice, and a degree of sophistication. Consider this one for my younger audience, but I think we can all use a reminder of some of the basics. Also, I really encourage those of you who have 'been managed' by subordinates both successfully and unsuccessfully to send me feedback on this topic. I'd really like to be able to write at several more follow up blogs with additional recommendations and experiences.

First, let us define what it means to manage upwards. It is not simply a question of 'pleasing the boss'. It is about positioning yourself and your work in an effective light, it is about increasing your own agency and autonomy, and it is about ensuring that you work in an environment that works for you instead of against you. When you manage your superiors, you are attempting to manipulate the levers of control in your environment to improve your ability to be effective, healthy, happy, and productive. Arguably, when you manage your senior relationships well, you not only improve the likelihood of your own success, but you also increase the value of your team, your manager, your division and so on. Done correctly, management of managers is something that benefits all parties in the organisation.

Don't Be a Suck Up

The most important principle in managing upwards is to avoid being a syncophant. Few leaders -- even really bad leaders -- truly like the person who just kisses their a*. I mean sure, there are a few of those, but you don't want to work for them anyway. Let's assume that you respect your leader and they are worthy of your attention and time. If they are worthy, they are going to want more than yes yes yes lick lick lick. So don't do that. Don't even think about doing that. Write that on the inside of your eyeballs. I am not a suck up.

Build Your Influence

The reason this topic surfaced in my brain recently is of course a by-product of the recent series on influence. The two are very tightly intertwined, as one of the most effective strategies to manage the manager is to be influential. All the elements of charisma, brand, trust, respect, expertise, consistency, and competence come into play.

Your influence can be used either directly or indirectly. When you exercise direct influence over your leader, you use some of the reserve you have built up in the banks of trust, brand, and competency to affect the decisions of a leader. A few tips here. Influence applied to a manager inevitably works better in private, one to one settings than in group settings. Why? Most leaders instinctively respond negatively to contrary input in front of their subordinates or peers. I mean, that's just being human. Even the best leader bristles a bit, and really can you blame them? Especially watch out for those sneaky ones that say, "Oh please tell us all why you think I'm an idiot here in this team meeting..." because while they mean it in the moment, human nature means it still hurts in the moment. So use your one to one meetings, happenstance encounters in hallways, elevators or kitchens, and other such places to exercise your influence to change your manager's decisions, course, or strategy.

You can also wield influence indirectly by building a audience for your ideas that includes all the people that your manager listens to. Nothing suggests power over your manager like your manager's manager really liking your ideas. However, I suggest you exercise your influence muscles with your manager's friends, peers, and perhaps other members of your team. Again, be careful with this. Don't be sneaky or malevolent. Don't go around your manager. Rather, build a chorus around your manager that can help explain in a variety of ways why your ideas might be a preferred course of action. Sometimes we just need to hear something multiple times by multiple people before it sinks in and makes sense. Sometimes we need a friend to say it.

Be Useful

You have a job to do. Do the job. Also, do things that are useful for your manager... even a few that you think are utterly pointless. I always assume the best of my direct manager. He wouldn't ask me to do something truly stupid, right? Some fraction of the things that he asks me to do are inevitably a waste of time, but ... yeah let's just squeeze a few of these onto the agenda. This habit of doing things that your manager really wants to see done serves you in a number of ways:

  • People always respond more positively to the ideas and needs of someone perceived as useful. It's a built-in back scratching thing.
  • You build yourself a reservoir of good will that enables you to push back a bit when you are categorically certain something is a waste of time.
  • Sometimes *gasp* your manager is right and you'll stumble onto a task or activity that actually is useful, interesting, and adds value to you, your team, and the organisation. I know. Those sneaky managers getting intellectual veggies on the menu.

Where Possible, Be Transparent

Look, we all know that there are completely awful managers out there from whom you really must hide everything up to and including the silverware. Still, with each manager, try to figure exactly where the boundary zone is regarding truth telling versus challenging their authority. With managers, there is absolutely such a thing as TMI. They neither need nor can they handle the full truth. However, the more you can expose the inner workings of your heart, your intellectual thought process, and your needs, the more likely you are to be able to manage upwards. Trust builds trust. Confidences shared encourage reciprocity. Vulnerabilities exposed enable others to similarly reveal their own gaps and weaknesses. All of this honesty and transparency enables a conversation where you -- the subordinate -- are in a far better position to challenge the leader and change their course of action.

Dip your toe on this one. The metaphor that comes to mind is that the first time you go swimming in this pool, the pond is dark green and you have no flipping clue how deep it is. Over time and assuming you have a reasonably good quality leader, the water will clear, the outlines of the bottom will become clear, and you can confidently jump off a cliff into the deepest part if it becomes absolutely necessary.


Let's keep this going. Please send me your stories (both good and bad) along with your recommendations so I can build on this theme. Think of it as a public service for my daughters.