Good managers, which we expect you all are, typically work to develop better relationships with their subordinates and study and practice the best ways to manage them. But how often do you think about managing your boss?
There’s a trend called “managing up.” It involves learning about how best to work with your boss—which can include filling in for their inadequacies—to both get your own work done more easily and to be seen as someone who’s ready for more responsibilities.
It may sound like “managing up” is a fancy name for “sucking up,” but proponents insist that’s not the case. “Power is the ability to get things done,” writes Whitney Johnson in Harvard Business Review. “Managing up helps you get the resources you need to get those things done.”
“Powerful people need powerful direct reports,” David Bradford, co-author of Influencing Up, tells the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “They need direct reports who can take initiative in coming up with new ideas and getting them implemented. Furthermore, even the most successful leaders get blinded by what they want, and need reports who will ‘tell truth to authority’ in a respectful manner. Most powerful leaders do not need or want passive, obsequious subordinates.”
So what is “managing up”? “Managing up is about being proactive and making yourself an indispensable part of the team,” writes David Saef, executive vice president of MarketWorks and strategy at GES, in Mashable. “The more you anticipate the needs of senior executives — and jump in without being asked to fill those needs — the more they’ll support you and your career endeavors.”
Okay. So how do you do it?
- Think of yourself as a junior partner. “’Subordinate’ carries all sorts of negative implications including excessive deference, passivity, and the like,” Bradford notes. But “junior partner” implies that both parties are in the same boat, involved and associated with the manager’s success. In fact, some of the best sources of information on how to “manage up” come from people who were executive assistants, such as Rosanne Badowski, coauthor of Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship With Those Above You, who served as executive assistant to Jack Welch at GE.
- Figure out your boss’ communication style. As we know, people have different styles in seeing the world, such as visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. If you have a visual boss, and you’re always describing things in terms of how things “sound” to you, don’t be surprised if they don’t “see” what you mean. Similarly, if you’re a texting person and they’re a phone person, they may never feel like they’ve really communicated with you if there’s not a phone call involved.
- Ask for feedback on a regular basis. Most of us hate employee evaluations, but the biggest problem with them is they happen only once or twice a year. It’s hard to modify your behavior that way. That’s why a number of organizations are junking the annual evaluation altogether, instead moving to a system of regular feedback.
- Find the best way to disagree. A good boss wants to hear from subordinates about potential problems with a new plan. That’s the point in having teams of people to begin with, to get different viewpoints. Otherwise you end up with groupthink, or people who are intimidated about going against the will of others. At the same time, it’s important to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable, writes Joseph Grenny in Harvard Business Review.
- Look for ways to use technology to make your job—and theirs—easier. For example, you could use workflow to develop procedures for common tasks, writes Laura McMullen in S. News and World Report. “Remember how you’re clarifying specific steps and deadlines on a project-by-project basis?” she writes. “Similarly, disclose exactly how you plan to handle common recurring issues and requests. In this situation, however, you can decide on the procedure once and then follow it – without nagging your boss for approval – in each recurring situation.”
All that said, some warn against managing up, especially when it comes to helping a boss navigate weaknesses. No matter how you justify the idea, the underlying assumption is this: “Your boss is not entirely capable of doing her job, and requires your stable and controlling hand,” writes Brian de Haaff, CEO of Aha!, in Huffpost Business. “And if your career is helped in the process, well, so be it.” Instead, simply focus on doing your own job without worrying about your manager’s, he advises.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine what the “managing up” naysayers actually want. Are they suggesting they think it’s a bad idea to figure out how people like to communicate, what their needs are, and how best you can help them fulfill those needs while helping yourself as well? It would seem that those are good tactics to follow for working with anyone, not just bosses. Perhaps the real issue is thinking of it as “managing up” instead of “playing well with others.”
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