By John Champlin (‘06, MBA ‘15),  Director, Engagement Programs, University Advancement, Wake Forest University

There it is! Electricity flies through the air to the invisible light bulb above my head that now glows brightly. I have the solution and I can’t wait to share it with my boss!  Hurried strides carry me to her office before I realize that she’s in the quarterly meeting with the board that she’s been anxious about all week. Reluctantly I walk back to my desk. I consider how best to let her know about my breakthrough. An email explanation?  A phone call? A walking meeting? What if the board votes against her proposal? What if she’s upset when she arrives back to her office? What should I do? 

Two women talking and pointing at a computer screen

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

An individual with skills in managing up would know how to deftly assess their supervisor’s state of mind upon her return to the office, know the best method to communicate their idea, and be aware of how to align it with their supervisor’s goals.

You’ve probably heard the term “managing up” before, but you may not be completely sure about what it means or how to do it. It’s hard to define because managing up is about a relationship that varies with each new or different supervisor that you have. The relationship can’t be cookie-cutter, but the steps you take to form the relationship can follow a consistent process.

A process can be helpful in developing a managing up relationship because it helps to ground and give purpose to all of the emotions that can swirl. Think about the times that you’ve been angry at your boss.  Or disappointed or frustrated. Maybe apathetic. Now think about the times that your boss has been angry at you. Angry or disappointed or frustrated or dismissive. Not a great feeling. Managing up doesn’t keep moments like these from happening but it can be a type of preventative medicine; a way of providing a way to jump off the tracks if the train is coming through.  

In essence, managing up asks us to know our boss, and, to a lesser extent, asks them to know us.  The power dynamic in the relationship can’t be ignored. In many cases the preference of the supervisor becomes the preference of the direct report. That paints a pretty subservient view and in the short term, at the start of the relationship, it can be.  However, as time passes, the scales balance a bit and there is a sharing of preference and expectation. Trust is earned and given and the relationship can thrive.

So, where to start? Below I’ve provided a few questions that are helpful for you to know about your manager. You’ll notice they span a range of personal to professional. We bring our whole self to work each day and it’s silly to think that only items that we deem as “professional” matter in the relationship. Take a moment to think through these questions and see how well you can answer them while thinking about your current supervisor.

  • What is one of their professional goals for this year?
  • What is a strength of theirs?
  • What is a weakness of theirs?
  • How do they react during times of stress?
  • Who is someone within the organization that frustrates them?
  • What is one hobby of theirs outside of work?
  • What is their favorite snack?
  • How do they prefer to receive information?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions it’s absolutely fine. Whether you’ve worked with your current manager for 4 weeks or 4 years these items simply might not have come up. You do not need to be a mind reader to get answers and guessing can be dangerous. My best advice: schedule coffee with your supervisor and run through this list.  You can pose it as an opportunity to further your working relationship. Also, answer the questions for yourself and be willing to share your responses. You may be surprised at your supervisor’s willingness to share and their reciprocal interest in you.

A strong relationship between direct report and manager yields positive outcomes for both parties and the entire department and organization.  By managing up well, your supervisor is likely to be more successful in their work and you are as well. Good luck out there friends!

Want to learn more?  Check out the resources below that explore Managing Up further!

Suddenly in Charge:  Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around by Roberta Chinsky Matuson

The Art of Managing Up by Wayne Turk

Managing Your Boss by John J. Gabarro and John P. Kotter