'Managing Up': What It Is and How to Make It Work in the Corporate World


Question: I'm about six months into my first post-Army job and a manager from another department just pulled me aside to say I need to learn how to "manage up." What does that mean? Is this now another thing I have to learn? How do you manage your boss and their boss?

Answer: Managing up is a technique whereby you help your boss become successful and in turn increase your value to the company. According to an article by the University of California at Merced, "managing up" means:

  • Managing your relationship with your boss
  • Developing and cultivating a productive working rapport with your boss
  • Learning the management, leadership and communication styles and preferences of your boss
  • Increasing your awareness of your own work and communication style and preferences
  • Adapting and aligning the work styles of you and your boss to form a productive working relationship centered around mutual growth and understanding, work productivity and career development.

Unlike in the military, where rules and standards and processes are clearly spelled out, there are more nuances to managing your boss in the civilian sector. For example, if your boss is more analytical and logical in nature (they like to see data, proven methodology and sound reasoning before making a decision) then to manage them, you'd ensure your ideas are backed up by research, case studies and facts.

Similarly, if your boss is a big-picture thinker, who enjoys brainstorming and discussing their vision and ideas, and who gets frustrated in data points and details, you'd help support them by speaking in terms of impact and influence, and if you are going to share data, wrapping the details in a story to better communicate the idea.

Secrets to Managing Up

First, study your boss (and even your boss' boss). What are their preferred communication styles, work styles and information delivery processes? As mentioned above, understand how your boss speaks and what kind of messages they relate best to. You can observe how they interact with your colleagues with whom they favor. See what your colleagues are doing right and where they're failing to gain support from your boss.

Second, be clear in your communications. If your boss is under pressure, on deadline or stressed, try to be more succinct in sharing your requests or updates. Then, they can ask questions to learn more. If you begin by being too long-winded, a stressed-out boss can grow frustrated in your lack of situational awareness and empathy for their state of mind.

Third, learn to anticipate what they need. Before a meeting, for example, do they prefer to have agenda information in advance or are they more of an in-the-moment decision-maker? Is budget planning season coming up or did it just pass (meaning your idea may be too late)? Do they like things printed out or projected onto a screen? How much detail will they need to decide about your request? Do your homework in advance and present information and requests to them as they like it (even if that's not how you'd prefer).

Finally, it's OK to push back on ideas your boss is passionate about. Do it respectfully (always) and constructively and never discuss your discontent with your boss' idea with other people before addressing it with your boss directly. Challenge their thinking, conclusions, suppositions in a professional and polite way. Ensure your boss knows you're doing so to make the project, idea or team better in the end.

Managing up means you're being intentional, thoughtful and consistent with how you support and add value to your senior leadership. Learning who they are, what they need and what they like is key to building influence and having your ideas received the way you intend.

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