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The Art of Managing Up—9 Ways to Better Understand Your Boss

August 12, 2020
Written by James Kenneth Koh

There’s plenty of information out there for managers (and aspiring managers) on how to lead; the difference between being a leader and being a manager; or how best to keep your team members motivated – through good times and bad. However, it’s very rare to find advice online on how to manage your relationship with your boss – the subtle (albeit all too important) art of ‘managing up’ – and how to have a positive impact on your own manager.

Throughout my career, there has only been a handful of individuals, in my opinion, that have truly managed me really well… without ever appearing arrogant, entitled, crossing the line or undermining me.

How you support your manager, how well you communicate with your manager, and how you can make a positive impression on your manager (without being an irritating brown-noser), are a few of the most important traits you can have as you progress through your career.

Here are 9 pieces of advice you might want to take on board. After all, you will always have a manager unless you’re sitting at the very top of the org chart!

1. Know what your boss expects of you

You always need to know what your boss expects of you. If, for whatever reason, you are unsure – you have to ask. In your regular catch-ups, instead of simply talking about what you have done or will be doing, make sure you check that you’re performing as expected. If you aren’t, it’s the perfect opportunity to course-correct.

2. Try to always be two steps ahead

This is easier said than done, but it certainly is an art worth mastering. Rather than asking your boss for a solution or an opinion, make sure you already have options or alternatives up your sleeve. This will demonstrate that you are proactive and have a solution mindset.

3. Facetime is your friend

And I’m not talking about the iPhone app! Avoid relying purely on email communication with your boss. Sure, some stuff can be conveyed electronically, but remember – visibility feeds credibility. Wherever possible, provide quick updates in person or on video chat. That way you can actually see and gauge how your manager’s reaction to the news you are delivering.

4. It’s up to you to support your boss

Do you really understand what your manager’s objectives are for the business, and subsequently, how your actions have a direct impact on both his/her role and business objectives? The best way to show support towards your manager is to think about the collective vs purely thinking about yourself. Being a true team player (not just through your words but also through your actions) is key. Make sure your manager knows that you are happy to be called upon for assistance whenever the need arises.

5. Be aware of how your boss might perceive you

I admit this one’s a bit of a sensitive one as it might even push you outside your comfort zone when it comes to focusing on your level of self-awareness or emotional intelligence. You need to make sure you’re aware of how certain actions (or lack thereof) may be impacting your performance at work.

Have you stopped to think how your manager might describe you? Could you be perceived as an ‘expector’ (perhaps somewhat entitled)? Are you an ‘ultimator’ always making threats if certain demands aren’t met? Could you maybe be seen as a ‘whinger’? (it’s exhausting managing a whinger). Maybe you’re a classic ‘delusionist’ (constantly asking for a promotion when you treat your colleagues like you-know-what)? Or are you the forever ‘opportunist’ –always asking for more? Unfortunately, this can often be misconstrued as simply not liking your current role.

6. Be prepared

This might seem obvious but it’s so much more than simply the Boy Scouts motto or an epic song from The Lion King. Make sure you are always prepared for meetings with your boss – regardless of whether it’s a weekly 1:1 check-in or a performance review. Have clear KPIs of what you need to do during the year. Set quarterly milestones and keep track of your progress, fine-tuning your objectives and deliverables to avoid any surprises at appraisal time – for either party. Come to every meeting with an agenda (even if it’s only a few bullet points); bring a pen and notebook (and use them! write stuff down!).

7. R.E.S.P.E.C.T

Apologies for yet another song reference here, but respect is a crucial element in managing up. Make sure you never cross the line and undermine your boss. As long as you have a boss, it’s your job to respect his/her role and his/her position within the organisation. If you disagree with him/her, show support in public but by all means share your concerns (always be mindful of your tone & manner) privately so you can get clarity.

8. Stand by your boss in difficult times

This is another very powerful part of building a solid professional relationship with your manager. It’s very lonely at the top and by standing by your boss during tough times will also energise him/her and spur him/her to continue to do his/her best for the team. If you can show your boss that you have his/her back, then when times are tough, he/she’ll have yours, too.

9. Don’t become a brown-noser

It’s up to you to create a positive impression. Never be fake or a two-faced snake. Always be truthful, honest and tactful. It’s all about having genuine interactions with your boss and always demonstrating that you truly care for the overall business and the team. Remember, you may become a boss one day – so treat others as you would like to be treated.

*       *       *

Turning up to 1:1 meetings with a detailed agenda, preparing well thought-out goals to discuss for performance reviews, offering to help your boss onboard new staff, or simply defending your boss and genuinely standing by them when times are tough, these are the actions that will have the biggest impact on your manager – and for all the right reasons.

Hopefully this post has armed you with exactly what you need to confidently manage up; to better communicate with and understand your boss; remain top of mind and not glazed over when promotional opportunities arise; and ideally build a solid professional relationship with the person who ultimately holds your career path in their hands.

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