Personal Development

Managing Up – The Art of Working Effectively with an Ineffective Boss

Managing upwards allows employees to build mutually beneficial relationships with their managers. This has a positive impact on their work experience, job satisfaction, and career goals.

Managing Up – The Art of Working Effectively with an Ineffective Boss
Editorial Team
June 2, 2022
Managing Up – The Art of Working Effectively with an Ineffective Boss

Managing upwards allows employees to build mutually beneficial relationships with their managers. This has a positive impact on their work experience, job satisfaction, and career goals.

People don’t quit bad jobs, they quit because of bad bosses. According to a 2019 Robert Half survey of 2,800 workers in the United States, 49% of the respondents said they had quit a job because of a challenging boss.

However, it is equally true that the perfect boss is an extremely elusive species. Your manager probably didn’t earn their position because they showed incredible leadership skills. They might also be overworked, out of their depth, overwhelmed, distracted by personal challenges, new to the job, or just incompetent. So, what do you do? Well, there is a more effective alternative to quitting altogether and starting your search for the perfect manager. And that is to learn to work with the boss you already have. It’s called managing up. Mastering it will ensure that you have a great working relationship with your manager that, in turn, will guarantee your professional growth in the organization.

With Learnit’s Managing Up class, it’s not that hard to create a healthy, productive relationship with your manager. Check out the dates for our upcoming single-day workshops here.

Managing up meaning

Managing up, or managing upwards, is simply about managing your relationship with your boss. Managing up requires you to show the flexibility to change your working style and behavior to better suit that of your manager. It demands effort on your part to make your manager’s work easier and, thereby, increase their efficiency. According to the Harvard Business Review, managing up is the “process of consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the company.”

At its core, managing up comprises:

  • Building a productive working relationship with your manager.
  • Communicating with your manager effectively.
  • Anticipating their needs.

Many people associate managing up with being submissive or a sycophant, but that is far from the truth. In reality, managing up is a key leadership skill because it not only helps you adapt to different personalities and perspectives, it also helps you develop your influence in the workplace.

Take Learnit’s Influencing without Authority workshop to learn the styles, behaviors, and techniques to help you grow your influence and deepen your relationships.

Managing up pays

Your career need not suffer because of an ineffective boss. Learning to manage upwards comes with numerous rewards not just for you but also for your manager, team, and organization:

  • It improves your productivity and job satisfaction and helps you advance in your career.
  • It gives you the confidence to take your work experience into your own hands and be proactive towards fulfilling your career goals.
  • It helps you develop a strong relationship with your manager and communicate effectively with them.
  • It helps you develop influence, be an example to your co-workers, and show your leadership potential.
  • Managing up is a mutually beneficial arrangement for both employee and manager as they learn to support and help each other do their best work.
  • It also benefits the organization by encouraging different perspectives and insights, being an engine for innovation and strategy development, driving positive change in the workplace, and creating a positive work culture.

7 tips to manage up effectively

Love them or hate them, managers are pivotal to the work you do, your workplace relationships, and professional development. These best practices can help you manage up:

1. Get to know your manager

Managers come in all stripes. The first step is to get to know them, especially their management style. Do they prefer face-to-face meetings over other types of communication? Do they allow team members a certain degree of autonomy in decision making or are they the type to control everything? Are they decisive or indecisive? Understanding the way your manager works allows you to adapt your style to complement theirs, which is the foundation of managing up. Getting to know the boss doesn’t stop with a study of their management style. You can observe and learn about their interests (both professional and personal), habits, strengths and weaknesses, and perspectives. Managing up is not about using the information you have gained to judge your manager’s leadership and management style, change them, or go over their head to have your way. It is about learning to work with your manager in a mutually beneficial way. Managing up requires being empathetic to different perspectives, opinions, and personalities. Therefore, managing up helps you develop empathy, which is the top leadership skill required in today’s world of work.

Learnit offers many Empathy workshops that can help you understand different perspectives and interact with compassion.

2. Align yourself with your manager’s goals

Getting to know your manager also means knowing about their goals, objectives, and priorities. If the answer isn’t clear, don’t hesitate to ask them. Many proactive employees hold regular one-on-one meetings with their managers – weekly meetings are acceptable practice in most workplaces – to ask what their expectations of the team are and what tasks should be prioritized. Managing up is all about being on the same page with your manager so that work progresses smoothly and goals are met. This boosts the productivity and efficiency of the entire team. Let’s not forget that even if your manager’s style is vastly different from yours, it is a certainty that both of you want the same thing at the end of the day, which is success for the team and each of its members.

3. Communicate clearly and regularly

Your manager probably has a lot on their plate, which stops them from knowing about every aspect of your work. It, therefore, falls on you to keep your manager up to date, whether it is about the progress made on a project or the challenges you and your team are facing. Bosses appreciate team members who take the effort to keep them informed and make sure that there are no surprises. This also means telling them the bad news, which is better conveyed sooner rather than later. Apart from bringing transparency, an open communication line builds trust. To manage up effectively, your communication with your manager should be precise and concise – a short and focused email with your ideas and suggestions right at the top rather than a long, rambling essay, for example. Also, remember your manager’s communication style. Do they prefer in-person interactions over emails, or prefer you to ping them on Teams instead of book time on their calendar? By matching their style, you have a greater chance of being heard.

Take Learnit’s Communication Strategies workshop to learn how to communicate effectively with people who have different communication styles.

4. Don’t be afraid to speak up

A key aspect of effective communication is the ability to have difficult conversations. This can be extremely hard when the conversation is with your boss, who has a deep impact on your work life and career prospects. Most of us are inclined to sweep things under the rug for fear of ruining our relationship with our boss. But managing up teaches you not only to have that difficult conversation with your manager but also arrive at a positive outcome. For example, you need to tell your boss that your colleague isn’t doing their part and the team is suffering as a result. You don’t want to sound like a tattletale but you realize that staying silent will lead to a bigger crisis down the line. It is important to remember that most managers would much rather be told of a problem before it escalates than be kept in the dark.

Having the courage to speak up also means giving your manager your honest opinion, even if it is negative. For example, your manager has come up with a new business proposal and has sought your feedback. The problem is, you have nothing good to say about it. You might be tempted to offer false praise. However, an honest opinion delivered with politeness will be much more appreciated, if not at that moment then definitely after some time has passed. Even if you hate the idea right away, do your manager the courtesy of giving their idea some thought. The first step is to ask yourself if your point of view is justified. When presenting your feedback, be polite. Thanking your manager for seeking your opinion is a good way to start. Don’t just say that you think the proposal is a bad idea, but explain the reasons why you think so. This shows your manager that you have given the idea a great deal of thought. Rehearsing your conversation with a trusted colleague or mentor will help ease your anxiety. Once you have delivered your message, give your manager time to think and respond. Even if your feedback is poorly received, you will definitely gain from the experience and be able to tackle similar situations better in the future. The ability to have difficult conversations is very much the hallmark of an empathetic leader.

5. Be a problem-solver

It’s important to bring problems to your manager’s notice. But when you do so without suggesting fixes for them, you’re just complaining. Managing up is all about being proactive and making your manager’s life easier. So, when you encounter a challenge, think it through so that you can come up with ways to counter it. There is also a right way of presenting your solutions to your boss. For example, you can offer your chosen solution along with a few alternatives. Take the time to explain the pros and cons, potential risks and benefits of each solution as well as your logic behind each. This will give your manager all the information they need to pick the most suitable option. Never insist on one solution. Remember, the final decision rests with your boss. At the same time, since it is a solution you have come up with, accept responsibility for its outcome. Problem-solving shows off your capabilities, which your manager will certainly notice. And if your solution gets your manager’s okay, you will have turned crisis into opportunity and earned a chance to become an asset to your boss. Honing your problem-solving skills is also an exercise in self-improvement. It boosts your creativity and decision making abilities.

However, even better than solving problems is anticipating them. Volunteering for unpopular tasks that no one wants is one way of anticipating a problem and solving before it becomes one. Anticipating a problem and helping your boss nip it in the bud will give you confidence and help you develop influence, not just with your leaders but also your peers.

With Learnit’s Creative Thinking for Problem Solving workshop, master the art of getting through challenges that seem like stumpers.

6. Learn what you can

You might complain that your manager is incompetent and it might be true, but there will be something they are good at. Traditionally, managers are promoted not because they show great leadership skills but because they are experts in a particular field or have strong technical skills. In an interview with Forbes, Mary Abbajay, the author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss, reminds employees that while it is certainly important to develop an effective working relationship with their less-than-perfect bosses, polishing their own skills by learning from the expert can be a sweet bonus that they should not miss out on.

7. Don’t stress the small stuff

Managing up can lead to minor dissatisfactions. For example, you have convinced your manager to go with your idea and it is a resounding success, but that manager ends up taking all the credit for your success. Don’t be too bothered by it, even if it is certainly unfair to you, says Abbajay. “Success gets noticed, and in organizations that usually means the team and/or department gets noticed too,” she explains. “Make your boss and your team look good and you will look good as well. Plus, people aren’t stupid – everyone probably already knows that you are the success engine behind your incompetent boss.”