Illustration of a woman making a thumb's up to another person with a fissure in the background.

Managing Up is for Managers, Too

Written by the Officevibe Content Team, Illustrated by Simon Lavallée-Fortier

May 29, 2019

As a manager, supervisor, team leader, or coach, you may have heard of the expression managing up; the concept that you not only need to manage your team, you need to manage your boss, too.

It’s an important concept that speaks to the many ways modern workplaces and workplace relationships are evolving.

The impersonal and fear-based ‘don’t tick off your boss’ mentality once took precedence over getting to truly know them, but today, we see a shift towards more lateral hierarchies and authentic workplace relationships.

In other words, give-and-take relationships that function on the basis of trust and learning about one another as people, not just workers.

In this article, we look at the dos and don’ts of managing up, how to give productive criticism to your boss, and why managing relationships is key to a happy and successful work life.

What is managing up?

Managing up has for the most part been advice for employees who need to manage their team leaders.

Things like:

  • How to manage project expectations from your boss
  • How to deal with different kinds of managers (personalities and leadership styles)
  • How to approach your manager with constructive criticism
  • How to help your manager help you reach your career goals

While most articles on the subject speak directly to employees about managing up to their managers, middle managers have the unique and sometimes tricky position of being sandwiched between their team and their boss, which requires them to wear two hats, and manage in two directions.

So, while you should be aware of how your team might be managing up to you, you’ve also got to be on the ball when it comes to managing up to your own boss.

Ready? Let’s drill down and manage up.
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Torn between employers and employees

Have you ever felt torn between your boss and your team? Reaching those aggressive business goals while also trying to maintain a positive relationship with your colleagues?

Two common examples might be:

  • Your boss comes out of left field and demands that a task be completed by a certain date in order to reach the business objectives. Your team is trying to make the point that this deadline is utterly unreasonable, if not impossible.
  • Your boss makes suggestions to improve a project, but your team insists that the changes will only make it different, not better, thereby wasting their time and pushing the deadline.

Maybe you agree with your team, or maybe with your boss. Either way, as the go-between, you are the one who needs to communicate in both directions what the expectations are, why they are that way, and if they should be open to change.

Quick tip: Don’t take either side too quickly without listening to both sides, and try to help everyone remember that while methods may be different, you’re all trying to get to the same place. In any conflict, finding the point that you have in common is always the best place to start the conversation.

Flag flapping with the words Clarity, Compassion, Communication written on it.

Remember the 3 Cs: clarity, communication, compassion

Here at Officevibe, our marketing director Marie-Christine (MC) knows that if her boss comes to her with a tough task on a tight deadline, she can’t just pass on the details to the team without a good talk. Clear communication and allowing the team the space and time to digest and ask questions is important, and so is understanding that a switch in direction or deadline might be stressful for them.

“I never come to my team with a set change of deadline without a clear explanation, I explain: Why do we need this? My job is to shine light on the reasons why a decision was made. The team might not agree, but at least they understand. Once I explain the reasons, I expect our team to ask questions and see this as an opportunity to challenge our way of working and thinking. My boss will definitely be open to a dialogue and compromise on deadlines if the quality and value for our customer and business should increase.”

This clarity, communication and compassion are key, and you need to ensure that you get the information you need from your boss to properly deliver the details to your team. With this, you can help everyone understand and then reiterate that while there may be differences of opinions on how things are getting done, everyone has the same goal.

Try this: If your boss wants changes that your team doesn’t think will be an improvement, split your team in two, do both iterations, and show your boss both results explaining why one is superior. If this doesn’t fit your team’s reality, try getting your boss to come talk to the team in an open “ask me anything” session where they can explain first-hand the reasons why decisions are being made. This is all essential to building trust across all levels.

Managers need empathy, too

We don’t always get to choose who leads us, but we do have the opportunity to better the situation by understanding one another with a little bit of good old fashioned empathy and open-mindedness.

Many articles will reduce the “bad boss dilemma” to incompetent or mean bosses. We believe it’s more productive to focus on bosses with a more human lens. Remember that just like you and your team members, they too might be under quite a bit of pressure.

Thought experiment: Imagine you’re a freelancer and your boss was a client, how would you deal with them differently if that were the case?

If a boss seems to be acting too strict or impatient, don’t assume it’s part of an essential character flaw. Take a moment and consider what pressure they have. It’s all about empathy.

As MC encourages us to think: “Maybe the manager is stressed out, so I need to see where they’re coming from.” It certainly won’t help anyone to “just be mad all day… because your manager is human, maybe they don’t feel perfectly adapted to their job. They probably need help.”

Four hands, three holding an object: a magnifying glass, a timer and a whistle

Understanding different managerial styles

It’s also important to remember that bosses, managers and team leaders all have different managerial styles. If you’re the one managing up, you have the responsibility of understanding their style. It’s also good to understand your own managerial style, so try to pinpoint both yours and your bosses, and then find out how to best work together.

Here are some examples of managerial styles, all of which have their strengths. We offer some actionable tips on how to adapt in those rare cases where a certain style might become difficult for whoever is working under these managers.

Visionary Managers: They’re are all about the big picture. Except sometimes, if they get too lost in their overall vision, they may fail to notice some smaller issues on the ground.

Tip: In this case, it’s good to give clear concrete updates on progress and setbacks, so these managers’ expectations don’t become too disconnected from reality.

Pacesetting Managers: They’re really great at laying down clear and concise targets, deadlines and results. However, it’s possible they end up pressuring their teams to meet these goals at any cost.

Tip: Similar to visionaries — but for opposite reasons — these managers should be regularly kept in the loop regarding results and deadlines so that they understand if and when problems arise.

Coaching Managers: These folks really motivate their teams by giving frequent feedback and assistance, but sometimes it might be a bit too much, resulting in employees feeling micromanaged.

Tip: With coaches, when they give you a task, it’s helpful to set clear, scheduled check-up meetings, so that coaching doesn’t become too constant, random or invasive.

Democratic Managers: This type of managerial style really opens up the freedom for teams to work however they think is best. The problem might be that with too much freedom, there might lack direction.

Tip: After a team brainstorm session that produces several ideas or directions, ask the democratic manager to give the final say, putting them back in the leadership seat.

Build a better relationship with your boss

A boss is more than their managerial style; they’re someone with whom you need to have a good relationship — both professional and personal — so that you and your team can be engaged and perform.

Two people talking to each other.

Ask yourself: What do you know about your boss? What are their career aspirations? How did they become a boss and how do they see their own professional future?

As a manager, you know how important it is to have constant communication with your team. While your boss may not have the same time or schedule as you, it’s important to try to get in regular face-to-face time with them to learn about their likes, dislikes, work methods, and vice versa!

Here are some elements to consider for relationship-building with your boss:

  • How does your boss like to be approached?
  • What are your boss’s work habits?
  • What’s their communication style?
  • What do they value?
  • What are their triggers?
  • How does your boss deal with conflict?

Some people thrive on conflict while others avoid it at all costs. Being aware of your boss’s personal approach to conflict and adapting to it will not only make for a smoother working relationship, but also help you see them as a relatable human being. You can learn all these things simply by asking. The more you understand each other, the better your working relationship will be.

How to give your boss constructive criticism

It’s no secret that giving constructive feedback can be difficult, especially when it’s directed towards your boss. Here are some tips to ease the process and make sure you get the most out of it.

dialogue boxes of two people giving feedback to each other, one being anonymous.

Just remember that managers, bosses, and even CEOs are just people who want the best for their organizations, and all the people in it, including you.

How to give constructive criticism to your boss:

  1. Sort out your criticism beforehand by writing it down or trying it on a colleague, to make sure it’s clear and sensible.
  2. Criticism should be aimed at things and behaviors (products, tasks, actions), not at people and personalities.
  3. Avoid oppositional language like “I don’t agree” in favor of open, collaborative language like “Why don’t we try this?”
  4. Timing is important. Know when your boss has the time and headspace to hear something they may not want to hear.
  5. Remember, nothing deserves total criticism, even mistakes are learning opportunities. Find a positive angle to balance the criticism, and be forward-thinking in your feedback.

Many people are uncomfortable offering criticism to their managers and bosses. Officevibe is designed to assist the sometimes tricky task of upward feedback. Using organizational development metrics like growth, satisfaction and alignment, it creates a space for employees to express themselves, helping you manage up to your boss.

Dos and don’ts of managing up

Whether you’re managing up to your boss, or encouraging your team to develop constructive managing up habits with you, here’s a helpful list to always keep in mind:

Do

Don’t

  • Don’t try and impress your boss as if you’re super intuitive and don’t need clear instruction
  • Don’t fix your team’s (or your own) mistakes quickly and quietly to keep your boss in the dark
  • Don’t assume you know everything and can do everything on your own
  • Don’t involve your boss with an issue you should handle yourself
  • Don’t use flattery to get on your boss’s good side

When it comes to simply being a great manager, check out these 8 must-know skills to empower your team to succeed and take on challenges.

It’s about people, not positions

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, from an intern to a CEO. As a manager leading a team with your own boss above, you’ve got the challenging task of navigating those strengths and weaknesses from all sides.

Communication and empathy are the key. Managing up is not about flattery or office politics maneuvering.
It’s about emotional intelligence in dealing with people, and recognizing that your boss is a person. It’s by focusing on people, not positions, that we form better relationships.

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