First-principles of “managing up”
Having worked for ~20 managers over the last two decades, I have to admit that managing up has been one of the most challenging skills to get the hang of. Upper management is a key stakeholder group that shapes your daily job and long-term career growth in the org, so learning how to effectively manage up is critical. I’ve made many mistakes and incorrect assumptions about managing up, and perfecting it will be a life-long journey for me, but I wanted to share my learnings so far in case anyone finds it useful.
So, the million-dollar question: Is there some secret art to managing up? Is it about making yourself more visible in the org? What about honing your negotiation skill with your manager to get what you want? Should you be friends with them? Should you say “Yes” to more requests and be more agreeable?
These tactics can be helpful, but they may not work with certain managers or situations. So what’s the first principle that can scale to many managers over time?
I believe that you should manage up like you want to be managed.
When I think about how I like to be managed, these main themes come up:
I want my manager to understand me and accept me for who I am.
I want them to be approachable and have great listening skills.
I want my manager to provide more feedback.
I want to get clear guidance from my manager.
I want my manager to have my back when something goes wrong.
Let’s now think about how these themes can be applied to managing up:
I need to understand my manager and accept them for who they are.
I need my manager to feel that I’m approachable and have great listening skills.
I need to provide more feedback to my manager.
I need to give my manager clear guidance.
I need to have my manager’s back when something goes wrong.
1. I need to understand my manager and accept them for who they are.
Working together is a human concern, and understanding each other is the first basic step. Just like your manager needs to tailor their approach and style to you, you should customize your approach to them.
Every manager is different, so it’s important to understand their current priorities, worries, and challenges as well as their personality, operating principles, and communication style. What keeps them up at night, and what excites them to come to work every morning? What do they care most about this quarter? What are the org dynamics they’re situated in? Put yourself in their shoes and amplify their position and perspective. Once you have a better understanding of your manager, you’ll be able to open a door to much richer, more empathetic, and authentic conversations with them.
2. I need my manager to feel that I’m approachable and have great listening skills.
This approach goes hand-in-hand with the first point above. Managers also like to be heard, so be a sounding board, not a brick wall. Actively listen and help them feel comfortable reaching out to you in the future. If you only engage them about your own matters, you run the risk of turning the relationship into a one-way street.
In an ideal employee/manager relationship, there is a strong mutual trust that both parties can discuss challenges without fear of judgment, and there is a shared motivation to solve problems together.
3. I need to provide more feedback to my manager.
Managing up means building a healthy and transparent communication channel. Just as you’re curious about what your manager thinks of you, your manager probably wants to know what you think of them. Regardless of position or level, we’re all humans who want to understand how others perceive us.
Also, try to give feedback in real-time so your manager is aware of opportunities for improvement throughout the year instead of having to wait for annual reviews or employee surveys. When you are inspired by something your manager has done, share your positive feedback — your encouragement will mean a lot to them. When you see room for improvement, share that feedback as well. Any well-meaning manager will appreciate your candor.
4. I need to give my manager clear guidance.
It’s your manager’s job to provide guidance and directions, but it doesn’t mean that they will be able to solve every problem you face. The reality is that your manager has 20 other things to worry about, so don’t assume that they already have an answer that you don’t have. Sometimes you need to break down your problems for them at the right fidelity and guide them along.
In fact, chances are that you probably have much more context and knowledge about the specific project and team you’re working with, so you may be best positioned to not only articulate the problem and identify the path to the optimal solution.
Before you bring the problem to your manager, think about some potential solutions first to lay the groundwork for a more productive conversation. This has the added benefit of helping your manager perceive you as a problem solver and thought partner as opposed to a complainer or a victim. This skill is especially important as you are in a more senior role.
5. I need to have my manager’s back when something goes wrong.
Trust and loyalty is really important in any long-lasting employee/manager partnership. When there’s a strong alignment of goals, expectations, and motivations between you and your manager, amazing things start to happen and more opportunities will become available.
In most cases, helping your manager succeed leads to a win-win. Create a sentiment of “we” not just “you.” The spirit of “one team one fight” goes a long way. Invite them to your thought process, welcome their input at the right time, and co-create ownership. We’re here to grow together and build upon each other’s success.
What’s your story?
I’ve had the privilege of managing talented teams, but managing up to inspiring leaders has also been an incredibly rewarding part of my career. I hope my thoughts help you develop stronger relationships with your managers and stakeholder teams. This is an ongoing learning process for me as well, so I’d love to hear about your experiences, strategies, and “ah-ha” moments. Please share your insights in the comments below!
Special thanks to Tae Kim, our amazing Content Strategy lead at DoorDash for lending me a hand on this article.
Helena Seo is a Head of Design at DoorDash. We’re actively hiring seasoned talents in all UX functions. Please visit our career page and check out the Design section!
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