The Subtle Tactics of Managing Up

user Jonathan Rosenfeld
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If you ask ten people why they left a job, chances are that well over half will mention their boss. In a recent survey conducted on behalf of Randstad USA, 61% of workers stated that they had left/were leaving jobs because they didn’t like their direct supervisor and 58% stated that they would actually take a lower paying position if it meant working for a great boss. If you manage people, you can see the obvious ramifications. But as an employee, how can you use this information to forge a better relationship with your manager? Wouldn’t it be great, if your first option involved turning things around with your boss, rather than needing to exit and find a new position?

Regardless of who you report to in an organization, a refined “managing up” strategy will allow you to do the job you were hired to do—and at the end of the day, doesn’t that mean helping your boss meet their goals?

Chances are that whether your manager is a C-level executive or a middle manager, she has a long list of items she considers critical to the success of the company. Let’s say that list has 20 items on it. Given the cognitive limits of the brain as well as the number of hours in a week, she might actively be working on five, while tracking another five. If she’s good, she has some triage system that she follows, where occasionally she swaps out one or more items from the active category with those in the tracking category, and of course periodically adds or removes items all together. That means another 10 critical items are getting next to no attention. She’s not irresponsible – it is just the life of a senior executive. Part of the reason it can be lonely at the top is the unremitting stress of knowing there are opportunities and issues that could be game changers for your company, but accepting that you can attend to only a small portion of them. So how can you help?

Take things on

You can help by doing a piece of your manager’s job for her. Part of everyone’s responsibility at an organization, is to position their manager to bring optimal value to the success of the company. In that spirit, if you understand your leader’s goals and anticipate their needs, you can offer to take an item that is getting no attention, and assume ownership of it. This allows you to not only show immediate value to your manager, but also position yourself as a critical member of the team. Consider solutions carefully so can you present a diverse set of smart strategies. Vet those strategies with some peers. This should yield priceless feedback, deepen your understanding of the problem, and enhance your ability to be articulate when you present your findings to your manager. Come in with a compelling argument for why you’d choose one solution over the others and be ready for counter arguments against your recommendation. If you tackle this item comprehensively, with grace, intelligence, confidence, and speed, it will go a long way towards earning the respect and support of your manager. This will reap benefits to you in job satisfaction while providing you with experience and evidence that you are ready to move up to more responsibility and leadership.

Do your job with integrity

Of course, managing up isn’t just about taking on the parts of the job your manager can’t get to. It also includes doing your own job with integrity. This means honoring your commitments by delivering things on time and with a level of execution that shows your aptitude and project management skills. It goes without saying…but I’m just saying…that taking initiative on some aspect of your manager’s purview, while neglecting your own, is a failed strategy…so don’t lose sight of your own defined roles and responsibilities.

Get to know their style

Managing up properly includes developing a relationship with your manager and understanding how to best work with them. For example, do they prefer to communicate by email or in person? Do they want to brainstorm verbally or put their thoughts on paper? Do they prefer a weekly check-in meeting or ad hoc get-togethers? Understanding and accommodating their style of working and communicating gives you instant credibility.

Be respectful and prepared

Lastly, be respectful of your manager’s opinions and time. Your manager needs your feedback and perspective to do their best strategic and tactical thinking, but be mindful of the fact that your opinions may differ, so be sure to always honor their leadership and expertise. In addition, recognize that their time is valuable, especially if they are part of the C-suite. By always coming to meetings prepared with an agenda, a well-defined objective, your point of view, and the expected ROI, your manager will not only be able to leverage all your work rapidly and confidently, but will also become your advocate  and champion as you advance through your career.

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