What is Managing Up and Why Should it Matter?

May 8, 2018

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Managing up, or building smooth, productive relationships with higher-ups, requires understanding and adapting to your boss’s communication and decision-making style. The goal of managing up is to develop a pattern of interaction between your boss and you that delivers the best possible results for your organization (and by extension, for each of you).

The first step in effectively managing up is accepting that every decision in your company is made by the person who has the power to make that decision, even if he or she is not necessarily the right person or the best person to make that decision. If you can influence the key decision makers in your organization, you can make a positive difference.

When presenting ideas to upper management, remember that it’s your responsibility to sell, not their responsibility to buy. A good salesperson takes responsibility for achieving results. While the importance of taking responsibility may seem obvious in external sales, an amazing number of people in large corporations spend countless hours blaming management for not buying their ideas. We can become disempowered when we focus on what others have done to make things wrong and not what we can do to make things right. Focus on contributing to the larger good, not just achieving your objectives. Effective salespeople relate, to the buyers’ needs, not to their own needs, in the same way effective upward influencers relate to the larger needs of the organization, not just to the needs of their unit or team.

Present a realistic Cost-Benefit Analysis of Your Ideas – don’t just sell the benefits. Every organization has limited resources, time, and energy. Be prepared to have a realistic discussion of the costs of your idea. Acknowledge the fact that something else may have to be sacrificed to have your idea implemented. By getting ready for a realistic discussion of costs, you can prepare for objections to your idea before they occur. By making a small investment in learning to influence up, you can make a large and positive difference for the future of your organization.

The accommodations you make help you gain better insight into your boss’s context: his peers, and the combination of organizational and personal objectives he’s trying to meet. The goal of managing up is not currying favor, it’s becoming more effective. Basically, your boss can fire you, but you can’t fire him.

As the subordinate, you may find it difficult to see the ways in which your boss “can be severely hurt” if they don’t receive the “cooperation, dependability, and honesty” they require in order to do their own job. In fact, the relationship is one of mutual dependence. The more thoroughly you understand the goals, constraints, and pressures under which your boss operates, the better you’ll be able to help them succeed. Begin with a discussion of goals and expectations. Most people are not aware of their boss’s needs. Ask them to clarify their top five responsibilities with their boss so that both understand and agree on what those priorities are. That’s a conversation everyone needs to have.

Don’t make assumptions about areas in which you lack information. Regularly seek clarification and updates about your boss’s objectives – concerns and priorities have a way of changing over time. In addition, don’t focus only on organizational goals. Your boss’s personal objectives can have just as much effect on how satisfied he is with your performance.

Pay attention to clues in your boss’s behavior. Observing your boss – paying special attention to their preferences about such things as meetings and modes of communication – offers many clues about how best to interact with them. Learning to adapt to the boss’s preferred way of doing things actually helps you “maintain control of your career. Once you have that skill, you need never feel apprehensive about working for anyone.

Managing the boss is a constant like being in a good marriage. You don’t go around saying you’ve done enough modifying your behavior for your spouse. We’re all in the business of modifying our behavior on a daily basis in relationships that are important to us. But once you and your boss have established a trusting relationship, the time you have to spend managing your boss should decrease dramatically.


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