Managing Up: 7 Best Practices for Guiding the Boss
Aspiring leaders find right balance between how and what to say
Managers don’t only manage down. They also manage up, and learning how to do it well is a critical career skill.
Managing down is what managers do with staff that are direct reports. Managing up is what managers do to their own bosses.
Effective middle and senior managers ideally want to make sure that their bosses make good decisions based on accurate, timely and high-quality information. They should want solid relationships based on mutual understanding, compatible views and respectful disagreements.
“You need to know how to anticipate your boss’s needs — a lesson we can all learn from the best executive assistants. You need to understand what makes your boss tick (and what ticks her off) if you want to get buy-in for your ideas. Problems will inevitably come up, but knowing the right way to bring a problem to your boss can help you navigate sticky situations,” says Dana Rousmaniere in Harvard Business Review.
Employees often assume that their behavior and performance on the job requires a supervisor to provide all of the guidance. In this narrow view, leadership always comes from the boss.
But that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes the employee can guide the supervisor. The effort to guide the boss is an instructive way of learning how to manage and also an investment in job security, future success and leadership development.
7 Best Practices for Managing Up
Some best practices are useful in learning how to manage up effectively. They include:
- Finding the right balance between communicating too often and not enough.
- Communicating in the most concise way possible.
- Sharing major but not minor good news.
- Sharing bad news honestly but carefully.
- Being selective in when to fight a battle.
- Avoiding complaints and criticisms about other employees.
- Dating and documenting all important information.
1 — Find the Right Balance Between Too Often and Not Enough
A micro expression is a facial expression that lasts only a split second. I had a boss whose micro expressions told me that I was visiting too often. I cut way back and later got scolded for not communicating enough. I eventually found the right balance.
Another boss always had a negative micro expression every time I walked into his office. But I learned he always wanted to be left alone because he had too many big problems. It taught me to share important information with him by email and memo rather than by office visits.
2 — Communicate in the Most Concise Way Possible
The higher the manager, the more an employee at any level needs to communicate concise and useful information. Senior and executive-level managers have to weed out massive amounts of facts to focus on what is most useful and important. They don’t want to be overwhelmed any more than they are already feeling.
Subordinates need to learn how to edit their speech, emails, phone calls and memos carefully. They also need to tailor the amount and frequency based on the personality of the boss. Some bosses want more information and others want less. But a boss who wants more also wants it concise.
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3 — Share Major But Not Minor Good News
Insecure employees will often share all kinds of good news. An upper-level manager who has big challenges with time management will not want to hear all of it. Minor good news is worth sharing at the end of a discussion, phone call or email about another, more important topic. Never hesitate to share important good news as soon as it happens.
4 — Share Bad News Honestly But Carefully
No one wants to share bad news with any level of management because of the potential consequences to the employee who was responsible for what went wrong. But not sharing of course is a terrible idea.
So the manager should think through what to say to the boss, how to say it and what will be done to improve the situation or minimize the impact. Hiding or distorting important facts will lead to loss of trust.
5 — Be Selective in Choosing Battles
Subordinates who are tempted to battle the boss on an issue should try an 80/20 ratio. It means 80 percent of the time when bosses are wrong and the disagreement is minor, the subordinate should try to nudge but not shove the boss in the other direction.
The employee should assertively and respectfully oppose the boss the other 20 percent of the time, especially when the disagreements are major. Just hope those times are rare.
Something that has dire legal or ethical consequences is an exception. In those cases, the employee should use every bit of logic, evidence and integrity to push back as firmly and diplomatically as possible.
“There will, of course, be times when you disagree with your boss, and that’s OK — as long as you’ve learned to disagree in a respectful, productive way,” Rousmaniere says.
6 — Avoid Complaints and Criticisms of Other Employees
Leaders and managers are paid to solve problems, even when that “leader” is a middle manager or even a staff employee. If another manager is part of a conflict, the boss needs to hear about it only if the subordinate has gone through every possible scenario in fixing it.
Because it is a form of bad news (see #5 above), the employee or manager should think through how to share it with the boss. In the discussion, stay objective about the problem. Focus on the behavior, issue or situation and not the person.
See More on Leaders and Managers: Career advice for people in charge.
7 — Date and Document All Important Information
Always send the most important information on a dated memo and either print it out for a paper folder or save it for an electronic folder. If the issue is important enough, bring a copy to an office visit and leave it with the boss.
Upper-level managers with information overload may forget about the document or even the discussion about the topic. A dated and saved memo is a form of insurance for the employee who sends it. If the situation ever deteriorates, the evidence may become a job saver.
Risks of Managing Up Badly
Managers may make bad decisions because of flaws in the information flow. Flaws include the following:
- An employee who distorts information to attract favor.
- An employee who leaves out key facts.
- A young or inexperienced employee who shares false or unsubstantiated rumors.
- An employee who is simply PO’d about something.
- Employees who misunderstand the information and share the misunderstanding.
The end result is distortions in the information that flows up from the employee or manager to the higher level supervisor. These distortions impact the decisions by the manager, some of which can have harmful impact on the company and the employees.
Rational, open-minded and objective employees of any kind, whether they are staff or managers, can learn how to control the flow of information to senior and executive management. It’s a form of power for anyone who wants to manage up successfully.
Once employees understand that power, they can use it for good or bad purposes depending on their character or level of job security.
In my 40-year management and consulting career, I have seen examples of self-serving employees who distort information for their own good. They get away with it for a while but not forever. They would have done much better if they had learned how to manage up effectively.
“Perhaps the most important skill to master is figuring out how to be a genuine source of help — because managing up doesn’t mean sucking up,” Rousmaniere says.