Managing Up: What the Heck Is It and Why Should You Care?

Regardless of what you do or where you do it, most likely, learning the fine art of managing up will help you do it better.

But what does it mean to manage up? I once mentioned to an executive that more employees in the company needed to learn how to do it, and she looked at me funny, like she thought I was advocating teaching employees how to get the upper hand with management or something — heaven forbid!

Various sources cite various definitions of “managing up.” A Wall Street Journal article referred to the concept as “stretching yourself,” of going “above and beyond the tasks assigned to you so that you can enhance your manager’s work.” Yeah, that’s not my definition.

“Teaching your boss how to manage you”

Urbandictionary.com defines managing up as “The process of managing your boss so that you and people who work for you can get work done with minimal interference.”

Hmmm … I don’t like that one either. It seems to assume that managing up is only needed if your boss is clueless. Not so, in my experience.

My definition of “managing up” is more along the lines of “The process of teaching your boss how to manage you; effectively managing your relationship with your boss.” (I just made that up.)

You’re in charge

The reason I was recommending to the executive that more employees learn to manage up is that their careers were stalling from the lack.

These employees had an idea that the boss was supposed to oversee their careers, and it just ain’t so. More to the point, it wasn’t happening.

When I’d suggest how they might approach the manager about a concern or request, I’d get a blank stare, as though it had never occurred to the employees to be more assertive and proactive, or they’d tell me it wouldn’t work. Then, when I’d point out examples of how it had worked, some would still doubt me, so wedded were they to the idea of being the passive little employee, waiting for the boss to notice what a great job they were doing so they could then collect their prize. And when that didn’t happen, they’d get angry, wondering why good work wasn’t enough to get ahead.

Other times, I’d need to counsel managers about the importance of identifying with management, rather than their line staff.

For example, one manager I coached disagreed with his boss on a departmental policy issue. But rather than speaking with his manager about his opinion and making an effort to bring the manager around to his way of thinking and/or accept that he and his manager would have to agree to disagree (with the subordinate manager doing as told, of course), he’d simply ignore his manager’s instructions and hope for the best.

You can imagine how well that turned out.

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It’s what the grown-ups do

Bottom line: if you want a good relationship with your boss, you’ve got to be invested in doing the work.

And let me just say, I’ve never received any significant raise or promotion without asking for it, and sometimes I had to ask twice, or three times, or accept the no now and request permission to revisit the issue later.

And when I’d get scared at the prospect of making a request and wouldn’t want to do it, I’d tell myself, “Then do it for your family, Self. They need you to do it.” Believe it or not, that hokey self-talk worked.

So, I’m a big fan of managing up.

It’s not about manipulation, or being sneaky, or boss-ing your boss around. Instead, it’s about being assertive, proactive, and strategic. It’s about looking out for your boss but looking out for you, too. It’s about being an adult professional and taking responsibility for your wants and needs.

And if you haven’t learned how to do it, find a mentor or start teaching yourself today. Because you have to manage your career. Your boss is most likely focused on managing his.

Besides, it’s the grown-up thing to do.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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