Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today, I want to talk about managing up.
There’s an old saying that people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses. And according to a recent study, 65% of people would choose a new boss over a pay raise. Without a doubt, our job satisfaction is heavily influenced by the quality of our boss. But if your boss doesn’t understand you, or doesn’t know how to manage you, or is outright incompetent, you don’t have to suffer in silence. In fact, even people who have great bosses can benefit from what we call “managing up.”
So, what do I mean by managing up? Well, on a basic level, managing up is all about teaching your boss how to be a good manager to you. It’s about improving communication, understanding, and collaboration so that you both benefit from the working relationship.
A lot of us are stuck in a particular way of thinking about power, in other words: your boss has it, and you don’t. But you need to think about your relationship with your boss as one in which you have choice and agency. You can influence outcomes and behavior and improve your work life by improving understanding.
When we manage up, we acknowledge that different people have different ways of communicating, behaving, and working. And we work to understand our boss’s particular style and approach. Think deeply about her expectations, her needs, her preferred communication style, and her goals. Once you have this understanding, then you can adapt. Of course, it’s a two-way street. It’s not just about you understanding and adapting to your boss. It’s also about teaching your boss how to adapt to you. If you have a strong working relationship, you can say “okay, I’d prefer to communicate by email on this.” Or “this way of organizing information doesn’t quite work for how I think.”
Obviously, what this requires is that you actually understand your own preferences. You really can’t expect your boss to understand your needs, your goals, and your style if you can’t really articulate it yourself. Though this is exactly what many of us do every day.
Now, there are some misconceptions about managing up that I want to clarify. For one, managing up doesn’t mean sucking up. It doesn’t mean flattering your boss and pretending she’s far better at her job than she actually is. And it doesn’t mean saying “yes” to everything she wants. Rather, it’s about establishing healthy boundaries in the relationship. And learning how to give both positive and constructive feedback. Yes, that’s right: managing up means giving your boss feedback.
Managing up is also not about manipulation. You’re not trying to change her or trick her into seeing things your way. Quite the opposite: you’re trying to be very transparent about who you are and how you work. And by being transparent, you can cultivate a good working relationship.
Some people worry that managing up is a kind of insubordination, that it’s somehow disrespectful of authority. Maybe calling it managing up confuses the issue, because it suggests the power relationship is flipped. Maybe it would be better to call it collaborative management. Because you’re not trying to manage your boss, you’re trying to help her be a good manager to you.
The way we think about this relationship is important. Just ask Mary Abbajay, who literally wrote a book called “Managing Up.” She says there are three reasons why people get stuck in resentment and bitterness toward a boss. First is ego, which wants to prove that we are right while our boss is wrong. Second is a fixed perspective. And that involves continuing to wish our boss would change when they clearly won’t. The only thing you can change is your behavior.
Resistance to change is the final obstacle that Abbajay talks about. Of course, most of us would like other people to change, rather than changing ourselves. Change is hard. Change is uncomfortable. But if you can get comfortable with change, then you too can learn how to improve your work life by managing up.
One final note: if managing up is about understanding, improving communication, adapting, collaboration, and providing good feedback, then isn’t that good for any relationship? And the answer is: yes. Managing up isn’t just for people with lousy managers. It’s for anyone who wants strong working relationships. And in our next lesson, we’ll look at how you can start managing up yourself.
That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon!