Your attitude toward your boss is shaping your boss and how he is treating you. Consequently it's your job and your duty to manage up. Being destructive or antagonistic won't get you anywhere.
Managing relationships upward has nothing to do with manipulation, political maneuvering, promoting of self-interests, sucking up, or brown-nosing. Instead it's a much needed skill to obtain the best possible results for your organization, your boss, and most importantly, for you.
Managing up means managing your boss. It's at least as important as managing down or cooperating with peers. It's an inevitable prerequisite of building a sustainable career.
When approaching the relationship with your boss with an attitude of open-mindedness and cooperation, you have much better chances to become a more effective manager and person. I suggest that you take the following main principles into consideration:
Understand The Nature Of the Relationship With Your Boss Comprehend and never forget that your boss and you are mutually dependent on one another. He needs your support to succeed and you need your boss to benefit from his assistance and guidance to do the right things the right way. As such it´s more of a "Partner-Junior Partner" relationship than a "Master-Subordinate" one.
You Get The Boss You Deserve I call it the "Principle of Self-Responsibility and Self-Accountability". It means that you're in charge. In charge of your life and, of course, of your career. You've got two basic options: you can wait until things evolve (or not). Alternatively, second option, you can decide to proactively influence the development of things and of the relationship with your boss.
Organize Yourself and Your Work You need to be organized in order to being able to become proactive and to have time and room to manage up. Be clear about your targets, clarify priorities, and constantly differentiate between important and urgent topics. Otherwise there's a big risk you'll chase your tail. And when being trapped in the human rat race there's no way you can discuss constructively and thoughtful with your boss. Recognize your needs, strengths, and weaknesses and align them in the best possible manner with those of your line manager. Define realistic expectations and targets (incl. deadlines, costs, etc.) together with your boss. The magic words are "together" and "realistic". Don’t set expectations too high. This might discount your credibility in case you don´t achieve them. However, don’t intentionally set them (too) low. That won’t help you either.
Decode Your Boss’s Personality Ultimately you will need to adjust your style and to adapt to your line manager's modus operandi. Example: If your boss is an analytical type of person you will need to have sound data at hand when discussing with him a project or business initiative. You should also be able to categorize your boss's behavioral style, his pet peeves, and his likes and dislikes. Does he prefer taking his time before making decisions? Is he getting stubborn when being confronted with too many requests? Is he satisfied by getting the whole picture or does he usually require all key details?
By nature your boss is not good at everything. It is up to you to figure out where he's weak and to provide your support in those areas. The better you'll be at that, the easier you can manage him and the more he will listen to you. The burden of exploring your line manager's expectations and personality falls to you!
Put Yourself In The Shoes Of Your Boss Try to understand the situation and context in which your boss is. Does he has to finish budget preparations, is he organizing a key meeting, is he about to meet very important customers? What is his immediate task, what are his exact needs, and what are the objectives he has to deliver? Don't forget that also your boss has his own boss. Every day take a moment and spot the critical challenges your boss might be facing. He immediately sees and appreciates if you understand and care about his targets, issues, and complexities.
Be Loyal, Respectful And Committed Building trust by being trustworthy is a crucial element in managing up. There's a reason your boss is your boss and that you're not his boss. Most likely, because you're not ready yet. As a result, accept this fact, display loyalty and show commitment. He should do the same. Don’t go behind his back or over his head. Go to him first. If the two of you can't resolve a serious issue, you might have to go over his head. This should be a last resort and you should tell him beforehand. To secure your general "independence", you should try having a mentor or coach. Always be aware of how you talk about your boss to others, realize that what goes around, comes around.
Over-Communicate and Avoid (Bad) Surprises Very good communications skills are the basis to successfully managing your boss. It can be verbal or written. If you want to be heard by him, then make it as convenient as possible for him, i.e. adjust to his communication style. If you're not sure, ask him and get confirmation by requesting feedback. Also don’t wait for your annual review to find out what your boss thinks of you and your work. Whenever you receive feedback handle it in a rationale manner. You will need to make sure that you and your boss are on the same page. Of course, it's the best if you respect agreed commitments, project deadlines, etc. Either way (i.e. even if you were to miss a deadline) the best method is always honest and forthright communication. Provide early heads up and don't hide information. Bad news doesn’t get any better with age.
Provide Solutions And Not problems Without doubt sooner or later you, your boss, and your projects will encounter problems. Actually nothing better can happen, since such situations separate the wheat from the chaff. By quickly coming forward with possible solutions you can demonstrate that you have given the problem some thought and that you care. When you share a problem timing is critical, i.e. discuss the issue within an appropriate situation and not in a "hit and run" setting. Your boss appreciates being informed, e.g. about a delay of the most important project, well before entering the board room and meeting with the exec team.
Disagree And Commit It´s okay to disagree with your boss from time to time. It should be based, however, on a in-depth analysis, solid arguments and – if possible – some precise examples. He will respect you for that. Even more so, if at the end you will support and follow him, even if the final outcome was not your preferred option. Important: Do not discuss with your boss just for the sake of discussing or because of trying to impress peers. It's a waste of precious time and it'll undermine your credibility.
Raise Your Concerns And Speak Up Raise your concerns clearly and politely, if needed. Stand firm. If you’re doing the best job you can do, keep your head held high and don’t give in too easily. Rather ask questions, seek to understand, and work to deactivate a difficult setting instead of suffering in silence or responding in anger. It may not always change the situation or the final outcome, but at least you would have given it a try. And if done in a rational, respectful, and well-articulated manner, it will earn you the respect of your boss. By the way, you owe your boss some challenging thoughts and ideas from time to time. Every good boss will appreciate it when you approach him with a genuine desire to make things working better. Usually this kicks off a new level of cooperation and trust between you and your boss.
What do you think? How do you manage up? What are your experiences?
Looking forward to hearing from you!
Andreas von der Heydt
Andreas von der Heydt is the Country Manager of Amazon BuyVIP in Germany. Before that he hold senior management positions at L'Oréal. He´s a leadership expert, executive coach and NLP master. He also founded Consumer Goods Club. Andreas worked and lived in Europe, the U.S. and Asia.