How to manage your manager

As a leader, managing your own people is crucial, but in today's workplace, working with your boss in a trusted and cooperative way is also essential. Ensuring you have a respected and workable relationship with your direct manager is good for you, good for your team and great for business. Note that this isn't about positioning yourself as your manager's favourite, it's about clear communication, advocating for your team and garnering support when needed.

Benefits of managing up

  • Alignment of expectations and objectives
  • Clear communication of what is required to achieve business goals
  • Support when issues escalate
  • Assists in your career progression

How to manage your manager is quite an art and takes time to establish. If you're starting with a new boss or need some help to establish a healthy relationship with a current one, here are some tips that can help.

  1. Communication is crucial

    Just as communication is the cornerstone of an effective working relationship with your own team, this is just as important when managing up. Communication takes different forms – depending on your industry, role, where your manager is located and how they like to interact.

    Do the work upfront to understand what channels your boss prefers to use. If they hate answering the phone, there’s no point calling. If your manager is a numbers person, communicate in figures, not in tomes of written words.

    Be regular in your communication as no one likes surprises – if issues escalate, then it’s more difficult to solve them later in the day than earlier in the process. Ask your manager the best way to let them know what’s happening with projects. It could be an online workflow tool that your boss can check themselves; it could be a 10 minute stand-up meeting every Friday or a regular one on one.

  2. Establish understanding

    Just as you have your own pressures and challenges to solve in your role, your boss is probably dealing with these and more in their pressured environment. Try and understand what they are working with – are they under pressure to produce more? To reduce costs? Demonstrating that you are empathetic with their constraints and challenges is a huge step towards an effective relationship with your manager.

  3. Be a solutions provider, not a problem bringer

    Think about how you feel when one of your team brings a problem with no thought at all towards a potential solution? Your manager feels exactly the same, so if you do need to escalate an issue, come armed with some potential solutions and your recommendation on which one is the best option. Steer away from too much emotion, provide practical support and be courageous – even when faced with a manager who doesn’t like facing stumbling blocks.

  4. Embrace strengths and recognise weaknesses

    As a manager yourself, not only do you need to use your own strengths and recognise your own weaknesses, it's just as important to understand these in your own manager. For example, if your manager is fantastic at getting projects across the line with their peers, bring them in when this is required. Do remember to use this sparingly though, and don’t waste their time. If you can do something yourself, do so.

    On the other hand, knowing what your manager isn’t so great at is also important. If you know they don’t know all the technical details of something, yet they are presenting to the leadership team or board, offer to come into the session to answer questions of this nature or offer to provide your manager with an overview before the meeting.

  5. Embrace Honesty

    When things go wrong, being upfront and open about things can be difficult and may have perceived unwelcome repercussions. Yet just as trust is imperative towards establishing successful interpersonal relationships with friends and loved ones, it’s just as important at work. Always be honest and your manager will know they can trust you and that there will be no surprises. This includes not going over your boss’s head or doing anything behind their back – this will ruin the bank of trust immediately and potentially forever.

  6. Set expectations

    Sometimes we feel our manager is unclear about what they need from us. If this is the case, don’t guess the approach and soldier on. Set up a meeting to clarify things or send an email summarising the meeting you have just had, including what you need to do, how, next steps and timelines. Be realistic and flag any potential issues; there’s no point signing up to something that is unachievable and will only create problems later.

Success as a leader depends on managing your people while also effectively managing the person who manages you. It really can make or break your enjoyment, satisfaction and performance in a role, so putting some time and effort into upward management is worth it.

Author: Peter Robinson
Team Leadership Services