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Managing Up | A How-to Guide

Two deers butting horns.

You have a new job, or a new manager and something isn’t working. You and your boss aren’t seeing eye to eye and you’re starting to get frustrated, or worse, you’re starting to check out. Your questions are left floating and you can’t seem to get a meeting. While you may love your organization, you’re feeling overwhelmed and confused, or just plain bored.

Stop! Instead of dwelling on what you can't change, recognize that it’s up to you to take control of your employee-employer relationships; it’s time to manage up. Here’s how:

Getting to know your boss, and yourself

Congratulations on deciding to take the initiative for making your relationship with your boss work. So, step one? Get to know her.

The human resources department at UC Berkeley recommends being able to answer a number of questions about your boss (and yourself) as a way to structure your developing relationship. By the way, Don’t literally ask your boss these questions, try to determine the answers on your own. Here are some examples:

  • How does she like to communicate?
  • How does she handle frustration?
  • What is her current or potential managing style?
  • What pressures does she have to deal with, and from whom?
  • What’s on her plate and is she swamped?
  • What’s her history with the organization or previous career history?

Now take a minute to answer a few questions about yourself that examine your own motivations and challenges:

  • What excites you about the mission and the position?
  • Has your position changed and how does that make you feel?
  • What are your principle frustrations?
  • What are your goals over the next month, three months, year?
  • How do you like to be professionally evaluated?

Once you explore these factors the next step in managing up, communication, will be that much more effective.

Pro Tip: Focus on supporting your boss in activities she does well. Meeting your boss in her comfort zone will open the door for additional communication and collaboration.

Establishing communication

Before you barge into your boss’s office and launch an interrogation, determine how she best responds to information requested, or presented.

Often, we communicate with people the way we want to be communicated with. To develop a relationship with someone who is above you in the hierarchy, you’ll need to adapt your communication method to one that works for them. Emails may work great for you, but they are ignored and clogging your manager’s inbox. So, don’t keep sending them; change it up.

Stop by your boss's office or pick up the phone. If you’re getting pushed off, keep trying and directly ask for her preferred method of meeting scheduling. Watching how your boss interacts with other colleagues can also give you some helpful cues.

Stay positive

Managing up can be frustrating, so keep your cool. Remember why you’re doing this. Insulting, passive aggressive, or know-it-all remarks will get you nowhere. As things move along, keep in mind you’re not there to change your boss. Even if you think you’re more qualified than they are, try to work within the relationship you have, and to improve it. Be generous and share institutional knowledge if you’ve worked there longer than they have.

Reality check-in

Once you’ve figured out your boss’s motivations, and how to talk to her it’s time to tactfully discuss the problems in your relationship. Show initiative and schedule the meeting, suggest an agenda, and make an effort to lead the discussion.

  • Discuss department and position priorities and how you fit into these objectives.
  • Determine a regular meeting schedule and if she's open to it, discuss her preferred management style.
  • Present your challenges and day-to-day experiences of your position, offer solutions, and set some goals. Explain your concerns from the point of view that you’re trying to do your best at the position, and are focused on the mission of the organization.
  • Be honest, frank, and express your concerns. Let her know that you’re overwhelmed or underwhelmed and try to determine why. If she’s piling on work without checking in, explain the negative impact that this is having on you. Be professional and polite but don’t be a doormat, stand up for yourself if the situation isn’t working for you.

Pro Tip: If your meetings keep getting rescheduled, or ignored, stay on it. It’s possible you’re not communicating with your boss in a way that works for her.

In closing

To review, get to know your boss, examine your own motivations, communicate on her level, set goals for your position, and be honest.

Remember, people can change but it’s not a short or an easy road, so once you’ve done an initial “reset,” like any other relationship it will take continual maintenance to keep it working. Keep updated on your boss’s preferences as goals and priorities change, and if you feel distance growing, be the first to initiate contact and bridge any gaps.

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About the Author | With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline Rodriguez understands the often motley course of career change. She’s been a reporter at NPR, a music teacher, and co-managed a yoga resort in in northern Michigan. Her passions include helping at-risk youth, supporting women’s rights, and encouraging girls to study science.

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