Managing Up for Career Success
Ask any career counselor or career coach, and they will tell you that the saying is true: People don’t quit their jobs. They quit their bosses. Learning how to manage up can help you have a positive working relationship with the person who has the biggest impact on your experience at work.
If your relationship with your boss is tense, uncomfortable, or even toxic, you’ll struggle to find satisfaction in your work, even if you’re doing what you love. Your performance will suffer, too — it’s impossible to do your best work when your time and energy are being siphoned off by a bad relationship.
Having a collaborative, healthy relationship with the person who’s tasked with managing you makes work so much easier, not to mention opening doors for your professional development. You and your boss can accomplish more together than you could alone, while helping each other move closer to your respective career goals.
So, how can you build that kind of working relationship, or get things back on track if the relationship with your boss has taken a few hits? A strategy called “managing up” is helpful here, and this article will teach you how to do it.
I’ve also recorded an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic with Dr. Lisa S., Ph.D., LPC, CCC. She is a career counselor and career coach here at Growing Self who’s helped many clients create better professional relationships and find genuine enjoyment on the job by learning how to manage up. You can find the episode on this page, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
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Managing Up for Career Success
When people talk about a “toxic work environment,” they’re not talking about asbestos in the walls or mold in the carpet. They’re talking about pollutants that have crept into their relationships with the people they work with (or, more often, for) — and the enormous emotional toll that can take.
Relationships at work make the difference between a phenomenal job and a job you hate, and no working relationship is more impactful than the one you have with your boss. There is a built-in power dynamic between you and the person who’s managing you, which will only feel ok if there’s a lot of trust, respect, and goodwill on both sides.
Creating a healthy relationship of any kind takes thought, intention, and some emotional intelligence, and you can’t take for granted that your manager will be able to create it for you. You need to be an active participant in building positive relationships at work, and in doing that well, you’re going to need to practice “managing up.”
What is Managing Up?
First, what managing up is not: It is not about making your boss like you, or trying to manipulate them to do what you want them to do. It is not about undermining your boss, or engaging in power struggles to flip the supervisor-supervisee dynamic on its head and wrest control away from them.
Managing up is simply understanding your boss’s goals and how your own goals align with them and then working in a way that creates win-win outcomes for you both. It’s about strengthening your sense of teamwork and looking for opportunities to make your boss’s life easier — out of a genuine sense of care and respect.
If you can figure out how to manage up well, your working life is going to be much more enjoyable, and you’re going to have a much easier time accomplishing your career goals. If you can’t, you’re going to struggle, and your career path is not going to be easy.
Managing up is a valuable skill to have, and one that’s worth honing if you haven’t already.
How to Manage Up for Career Success
A big component of managing up is helping your supervisor manage you. Most bosses want to be good bosses — they want to support the people they manage so that they produce good work that advances the organization’s mission. They want to create an environment where people will come to them when there’s a problem, rather than trying to cover it up and make things worse. They want to grow and advance in their careers, and they want to foster growth and professional development in others.
But people tend to be promoted to management positions because they’re high performers, not necessarily because they are already skilled at managing others. Your boss is engaged in the process of building their management skills (by managing you), and every manager you’ll have throughout your career will be at a different point in that process. Becoming a more manageable employee will make your boss’s life easier — and anything that makes your boss’s life easier makes your life easier.
One of the best ways to help your boss manage you is to be intentional about how you’re communicating. What are your boss’s preferred channels of communication? How do they like to receive updates? How often would they like you to check in with them? If you don’t have the answers to these questions, ask, and then bring your own communication style in line with theirs.
You should also be willing to provide your boss with appropriate feedback — not on their performance, but on how you’re working together. Let them know if they assign you a task that you really enjoy. If there’s something they could do that would help you do better work, don’t be afraid to ask.
You should also communicate with your boss about your personality and your working style, so they can understand you better and have a clearer picture of what would be supportive, and what would make your job more difficult. If you struggle to be productive when you have a lot of interruptions, your boss needs to know that. If you feel drained after meetings, it might be a good idea to communicate about scheduling meetings later in the day.
Many managers will be proactive about starting these conversations with employees, but everyone has a different leadership style, and part of managing up is accepting and respecting those differences. If your boss doesn’t spend time talking with you about how you’re working together, then find a way to start the conversation yourself, without being pushy or intrusive. You might want to invite them to get coffee with you or schedule a special meeting to have this kind of conversation, so you can be sure that you’re not taking time away from other priorities.
It might feel like “going with the flow” is the best way to get along with your boss (especially if you tend to be a bit of a people pleaser), but helping your boss help you creates better outcomes for you both while building a more authentic, positive relationship in the process.
Understanding Your Boss
Helping your boss understand you is one part of managing up, but understanding your boss is just as important (if not more so).
What are your boss’s ultimate career goals? What kind of support do they need from their team that they’re not currently getting? What are they excited about, and what problems are stressing them out and keeping them up at night?
Your boss is a human, with dreams, frustrations, and an inner life as rich and varied as your own. If you can get some insight into who your boss is, what they want (and what they want to avoid), then the path to supporting them will be much clearer for you.
Of course, it would not be appropriate for you to push your boss to share more than they want to share. Every manager feels comfortable with a different level of openness, particularly with the people they supervise, and not respecting your boss’s boundaries won’t do anything to improve the relationship. But you can signal to your boss that you are willing to talk with them about these more vulnerable topics if they want simply by showing interest in their career goals, as well as what they’re working on and how things are going. As you build trust and rapport with your boss, they’ll likely let you in a little bit more, and you’ll find new ways to support them.
The intention is not to gain information about your boss that will further your own goals, or that you can use to make your boss function in the way you think they should function. Instead, your goal is to build genuine understanding for the person you work for, which will make it easier for you to be helpful to them, naturally leading to your own career growth in the process. You’ll probably find that you have more positive feelings for your boss as well — it’s hard not to like someone when you truly understand them.
Challenges to Managing Up
Certain traits make having a positive relationship with your boss more difficult. If you tend to be a people pleaser or a perfectionist, that can make it more difficult for you to be open with your boss about things that aren’t going well, which are ultimately the things they really need to know. As in all relationships, having a good relationship with your boss means being appropriately open and transparent.
Office politics can present another major obstacle to managing up. If you’re tangled up in a snarl of inter-office conflict, your boss is likely to develop opinions about you that are influenced by the tricky dynamics you’re participating in, which are probably creating a lot of stress at work for your boss. Try to stay out of office politics as much as possible, and keep them out of your relationship with your boss. Don’t critique other employees to your boss, and certainly don’t criticize your boss in front of others.
Many conscientious, super on-top-of-it people have pretty firm ideas about the “right way” to do things, which is a very helpful trait in some situations but can be a liability in others. At work, it can lead to a lot of disappointment, frustration, and resentment when other people have different ideas about how things should be done.
Being tolerant and accepting of differences, especially your boss’s, is essential for managing up and getting along well with other people in general. Your professional development process is really a personal development process; as you advance through the stages of your career, you’ll find new opportunities to grow as a person.
Repairing Your Relationship With Your Boss
When the relationship with your boss has been rocky, getting it back on track can be hard, especially if you’re not sure what’s not working or what you may be doing wrong.
If things are feeling bad and you’re not sure why, and you have already established a level of trust and rapport with your boss, you can say something like, “This isn’t feeling good for me right now. Let me know if there’s a way I can be supportive, or if I should do something differently.”
That extends an invitation to your boss to address the problems in your relationship, without applying any pressure. You’re not saying “I won’t be happy unless you change.” You’re saying, “How can I be more helpful to you and make this situation better for us both?”
Learning How to Manage Up
If you’re like most people, you’ve probably had some horrendous jobs, and some fantastic jobs and a healthy, positive, collaborative work environment is probably what made the difference.
By adopting a “managing up” mindset, you empower yourself to be a part of creating that kind of environment. You don’t have to rely on your boss to do it, and you don’t have to quit your job every time you hit an interpersonal snag. You can be a part of building a win-win workplace where people feel supported and capable of doing their best work — and your career path will be smoother because of it.
Other Podcasts Featuring Dr. Lisa Severy
If you enjoyed Dr. Lisa S.’s advice for managing up, check out the other Love, Happiness and Success episodes she’s appeared on, including our shows on “Starting a New Chapter” and “The Great Resignation.”
Music in this episode is by SAULT with their song “Free.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://saultglobal.bandcamp.com/. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Episode Show Notes:
[00:58] Managing Up for Career Success
- Developing genuinely positive relationships at work is a very important piece of having a satisfying career long-term.
- “Managing up” is a career development strategy involving good management traits to build a positive relationship with your boss.
- If your goals aren’t aligned with your boss’s, you’re going to run into trouble.
[14:19] What is Managing Up?
- One way of managing up is helping your supervisor manage you by openly communicating with them about what you need, what’s working, and what isn’t.
- Inviting your supervisor to talk things through signals to them that you are invested in your relationship being a positive one.
- Most employees need to share their priorities and goals with their superiors but have no knowledge of their boss’s goals, tasks, and professional development. Look for ways to start that conversation.
[24:15] What Does “Managing Up for Career Success” Mean?
- Workplace problems typically involve secrecy. A lack of transparency will come back to bite somebody — usually, everyone involved.
- Managing up creates a win-win environment where both you and your manager are more satisfied and successful.
[34:53] How to Manage Up at Work
- Creating a sense of community and being a part of a supportive environment is a component of managing up.
- Anybody can be part of helping to create a positive culture within an organization.
- Managing up also involves making others feel appreciated, respected, and supported.
- Another piece of managing up is honoring and respecting workplace diversity in terms of communication, thinking, and relationship styles.
Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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