Playbook For Managing Up: How To Align With Your Boss For Great Results

Lori Li
8 min read
Mar 30, 2020

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Every now and then, managers find themselves scrambling to get their to-do lists sorted out. Amidst the chaos, the last thing they need is having to carry the entire team on their shoulders. In such situations, it falls on the employees to take charge of the situation—and start “managing up.”

In the most basic sense, managing up is a career development strategy (or philosophy, if you will) that involves working in a way that benefits both you and your manager. The end goal is to establish strong employer-employee relationships.

However, there’s more to it than just that. And effectively managing up requires a lot of work.

For that reason, we’ll go through the essential dos and don’ts of managing up in this article.

Let’s get started. 


What Does “Manage Up” Mean, Anyway?

If you’re new to the concept, you might be asking yourself this question: What does it mean to manage up?

Here’s a quick, jargon-free definition: Managing up involves making your manager’s life easier by understanding their requirements, setting up your own goals accordingly, being self-sufficient, and doing anything that might benefit both of you professionally.

Does this also involve doing coffee runs for them and picking up their laundry? Not exactly. To help you further grasp the concept, let’s dive into the specifics:

  • Understanding what your manager wants – It all begins with having a crystal-clear understanding of what your boss requires. Without knowing their goals and what they expect from their team, you might end up doing more harm than good.
  • Defining and communicating your goals – Once you’ve understood what your boss wants, set your own goals accordingly. At the end of the day, managing up should benefit both parties, and your goals should (ideally) align with that of your supervisor’s.
  • Identifying problems worth discussing – While it’s true that managing up involves being self-sufficient, you can’t realistically go on forever without highlighting problems and seeking advice. However, be selective of the issues that you choose to bring up. If a problem can be solved without involving your boss, it’s best not to bug them. For example, if a problem requires managerial input (e.g., finalizing someone from a pool of job candidates), then you have to involve your supervisor.
  • Focusing on providing solutions (not problems) – Avoid being the bottleneck and try becoming a useful resource for your manager (and the rest of the team). For example, you can try to actively look out for challenges (e.g., difficult requirements from a specific client), come up with a list of potential solutions, and present them to your manager.

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In a nutshell, managing up can be thought of as managing your manager, hence the terminology.

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3 Common Challenges to Overcome While Managing Up

Managing up might seem like an easy task. But it actually takes a lot of hard work. As an employer (or a middle manager reporting to higher executives), here are some challenges that you might have to overcome:

1. When to step up and step down

Depending on the culture, a manager may or may not appreciate their employees stepping up and managing up.

In the worst-case scenario, they’ll see this as a threat. As such, knowing when to step up and step down is critical.

Apart from understanding the culture, the best way to know when to manage up is to simply talk to your manager. Ask them how they feel about you stepping up, and which matters and decisions to not interfere in (unless specifically asked to do so).

Remember: Your job is to make your manager’s job easier—not to do their job for them.

2. Deal with uncertainty

Managing up comes with a certain level of uncertainty. Most of the time, you’ll be making solid decisions based on facts. But there will also be moments when you’ll have to trust your gut and rely on assumptions. This means that you’ll have to take risks every now and then.

3. Take the initiative

Similar to the above, understanding the requirements of your supervisor isn’t all that easy and risk-free. This is another thing that you can’t accomplish without effective communication.

However, as you spend more time within the company, your manager will eventually start expecting you to understand their requirements on your own.

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The Benefits of Managing Up

When people manage up, everyone wins. In a company where everyone is empowered to manage up, both the employees and the managers reap the benefits.

How employees can benefit from managing up:

  • Opportunity to move up in the ranks – Needless to say, by managing up, you’re setting yourself up for success. Demonstrating that you can take up responsibility and be self-sufficient will eventually result in you moving up the ladder.
  • More control over your work ­– When you manage up, you stop relying on your manager to set your goals for you. This gives you greater control over the wheels, resulting in a higher performance and increased satisfaction.
  • Improved relationship with the manager – All of the above will help you strengthen your relationship with your manager. They’ll eventually begin to trust you and know that they can rely on you to get the job done.

Besides the career development opportunities, the general satisfaction of making an impact is a benefit by itself.

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How employers and leadership teams benefit when employees manage up:

  • Higher productivity and improved performance – It goes without saying that when employees are motivated to go the extra mile and help managers attain their goals, the overall productivity and performance levels rise.
  • Less effort to manage employees – Management has to spend less time putting out fires—giving them more time to focus on more important matters.
  • More empowered and engaged workforce – When employees are motivated to manage up, they’re empowered to do more. This, in turn, helps boost employee engagement.

Tips for companies to encourage employees to manage up: 

  • Encouraging two-way communication between subordinates and supervisors (you can never go wrong with 1-on-1 sessions)
  • Being completely transparent with your teams and asking other managers to follow your lead (encourage your team members to seek and share continuous feedback)
  • Arranging team-building activities to strengthen employee-employer relationships (check out our ultimate list of team building activities for ideas)

Additionally, you can never go wrong with running a survey on how employees feel about managing up. Include relevant survey questions about management to get the answers you seek.

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What’s the Right Way to Manage Up? 

Managing up requires taking leaps of faith and doing things that could make your job even more challenging.

However, if you play your cards right, it’s all worth it in the end.

With that being said, let’s take a look at some essential dos and don’ts of managing up.

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How to Manage Up Effectively

Ensure that you do the following when managing up:

1. Know when it’s time to manage up

Knowing exactly when to manage up can help you avoid bumps and make your efforts count.

Your manager doesn’t always need you to make decisions on your own.

A good example could be when you’re about to start working with a new client. In such cases, it’s always great to consult with your supervisor for their advice.

Do the same with all other major decisions that might change the course of the task at hand.

2. Have a proactive approach

This is a no-brainer.

A proactive person is someone who thinks ahead, anticipates change, and does whatever they can to take charge of situations in advance.

In fact, research indicates a strong correlation between employee empowerment and being proactive.

To be more proactive, you should:

  • Learn to see the big picture
  • Think long-term
  • Come up with creative ways to solve problems
  • Become more organized
  • Seek feedback from your manager, peers, and subordinates (with TINYpulse, you can request feedback from anyone at any time)

Finally, make sure that you communicate clearly, since it is the key to effectively managing up.

If you don’t communicate—be it for the sake of informing others about what you’re up to or inquiring about tasks at hand—you risk making mistakes.

3. Focus on providing solutions

Again, make sure that you’re managing up to provide solutions—not create more problems.

The goal is to become a valuable and dependable resource for your boss.

Bonus tip: Read books to learn more about managing up

Whether you’re familiar to the concept or have never actually tried it, reading certain books on managing up can help you in the long run.

Here are some best-selling recommendations:

Besides gaining a textbook-level understanding, start practicing these tips to learn more through experience.

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Avoiding TheseCommon Mistakes While Managing Up

Here are some things you shouldn't do when you manage up:

1. Don’t overstep your boundaries

It’s important that you don’t overstep your boundaries and do something to tick off your manager.

In no way, whatsoever, should you give the impression that you’re challenging your supervisor.

Unless they give their permission to do so, certain managerial tasks and decisions (e.g., assigning work) are best left to your supervisor.

2. Don’t ignore feedback

It’s completely alright to make mistakes and take risks.

However, that should be complemented with actively seeking feedback from your manager—and acting on it.

3. Don’t manipulate your manager

Being able to manage up isn’t a privilege. It’s a huge responsibility.

Whatever you do, don’t manipulate or deceive your manager by purposefully making work easier for yourself, stepping up only when it suits you, or letting office politics influence your decisions.

Any hint of selfishness can sabotage your relationship with your employer.

4. Don’t do it when you can’t

Last but not least, it’s important to be honest with yourself.

Don’t stress over it. Accept when you’re unable to manage up and don’t shy away from seeking help.

Reasonable managers will never hold this against you. If anything, they’ll appreciate your honesty and would be more than happy to guide you.

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Wrapping it All Up

In the end, remember one thing: Everything that you do should benefit your company, the manager, and yourself in one way or the other.

By keeping the above tips in mind, you should be able to manage up without running into any landmines. Good luck!


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