This is one of the things I get asked about the most in my coaching and training work. It cuts across all industries and almost all of us have to answer to somebody! Even my executive clients often have to report to and manage up to their boards. So we all recognize it can be tricky, we all have to do it, and we need to talk about it more.
I’ll start by framing how I view managing up, since it’s a term that is used a lot, but there are varying definitions of what it means to manage up effectively. To me, managing up is primarily about these three things: getting what you want and need from your manager (information, feedback, etc), making sure they are seeing your performance and giving your opportunities to advance, and making yourself their star employee by making yourself easy to manage.
With that in mind, here are my top recommendations.
If your manager isn’t setting clear expectations for you, do it yourself.
Many managers aren’t great at setting expectations and this can happen for a variety of reasons. If you don’t feel you’re great at this, I wrote a blog post on setting expectations clearly a while back. That said, most of us will have to learn to work around a lack of expectations, but this can be frustrating and lead to miscommunications and disappointments on both sides.
For many managers, they aren’t withholding on purpose, they just haven’t thought things through entirely or haven’t had time to step back and visualize what they are expecting. So when you’re faced with unclear expectations, rather than waiting and hoping you’ll guess correctly, I suggest you take the initiative and lay out what you think you can deliver. What does that project plan look like to you? What should your new role be? Whatever the challenge in front of you, providing your visualization for how things will go creates a solid foundation and gives your manager something to engage on. It also shows that you’re an active participant in the process and you aren’t putting all the hard thinking work on them.
Don’t wait for feedback to be given, ask for it
Similar to setting expectations, giving feedback is another topic where I have done a lot of training and coaching work for managers. Why is it such a popular topic? Because most of us recognize these things are really important, but we aren’t sure how to do them well.
The unfortunate truth is that if your boss doesn’t give you much feedback, or gives feedback that’s so general you can’t do much with it, you’re the one who suffers. You won’t get the feedback that will help you develop, and worse, you may be in for a surprise come review time.
Here’s how I suggest getting out of this conundrum:
- Ask for feedback – sounds obvious, but it’s easy to “forget.” Asking immediately makes it easier for your manager because they no longer have to worry they are surprising you.
- Utilize examples – Come with a specific example of something you think you did well or that you think you did poorly on. Asking your manager to come up with an example off the top of their head puts most of the burden on them, and you aren’t likely to get much in return.
- Self-assess – Give your honest self-assessment first to jumpstart the conversation. Especially if you think there’s something you could have done better, acknowledging this means you can move into the coaching part of feedback, and your manager doesn’t have to worry about upsetting you or starting a disagreement.
While we’re talking about feedback, base your feedback for them around the impact, not their behavior.
Giving feedback up the hierarchy is tricky, no matter whether your culture claims to be a flat hierarchy or a traditional power structure. That said, making sure that you start your feedback by talking about the shared goals you and your boss have as well as the impact their behavior is having will ground the conversation and get them bought into why it’s important.
I do believe that most managers want to know if what they are doing is affecting their team’s performance. So if the issue is big enough, it’s worth bringing up (carefully). By framing it around the impact, you make it less about them and more about the outcome you’re all working to achieve.
Make yourself the easiest employee to manage.
There are a lot of things that go into this category, but one of the easiest things you can do is to make it easier for your manager by always bringing them something, even when you’re stuck. One of the biggest complaints I hear from managers is that employees come to them as soon as they are stuck.
Things you can do instead that will help you stand out: try various options before you ask your manager, ask a few other people before your manager, and come prepared to tell them what your approach was when you do ask for help.
It’s best to come with something whether it’s as far as you got, an idea on how to proceed, or a list of what you’ve already tried. It’s your manager’s job to coach you, not to solve your problems. Even if what you come with is 10% of the final answer, they will appreciate the effort you put in.
What do you think? Any other tips you’d like to add that have helped you in the past?
I’d love to hear them in the comments.