The Art of "Managing Up"

March 30, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

There are some ways in which a skillful subordinate can manage “up” and exert some influence over their Boss. This can be a very useful skill within an organization but, like so many other things, it can have a dangerous downside, too.

I suggest the primary motive behind using these skills should be a genuine desire to help your Boss or a peer be successful trusting that he or she will “take care of you” as time goes on. (This is the unscientific but often true concept that “what goes around, comes around.”) Otherwise, if you are perceived as a manipulator within the office environment only looking out for yourself, any good things you have done will quickly be overshadowed and your career may have hit a dead-end for the time being.

Since the work place is changing, it is critically important that the Boss be aware of what’s going on below him or her. And, since their skills in gathering information and developing relationships may not be sufficiently high that they can devise processes to collect the information they need, strategically-thinking subordinates can provide it if they are prepared to do so when the door of career opportunity opens. Before we identify what the smart subordinate can do, let’s review what Bosses can do that may be useful to a subordinate. Typically, they can exert varying amounts of influence through:

  • Awarding (or withholding) rewards or special opportunities to subordinates
  • Helping to get (or hinder) special consideration for transfers or promotions of subordinates
  • Getting items or issues outside the normal flow of work placed before executives for special consideration
  • Obtaining and sharing “inside information” about current or pending organizational events or situations
  • Accessing and sharing any other particular advantages unique to their position and personal relationships with their superiors.

All of those advantages are potentially available to a subordinate who is able to “manage up”; i.e., leverage influence carefully through developing a successful relationship with the Boss.

These considerations will be helpful in managing a relationship with the Boss:

  1. Make sure you understand their goals, objectives, priorities, values, strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, and working style (i.e., can see the “big picture” but not good with details or the contrary as detail focused but has trouble seeing the big picture).
  2. Be able to identify the pressures on him or her and their source. (Perhaps you can help to relieve some.)
  3. Make sure you understand your own version of #1 above
  4. Understand the limits and extent of your skills and how they may be useful to the Boss
  5. Determine the extent of your need for directions and frequent approval for your accomplishments. (Do you need a lot of positive feedback on things or are you confident that you can do a good job without constantly being told that?)
  6. Make sure you have clearly understood the Boss’ expectations of you and that he or she understands what you need from him or her. (Such as clear directions and expectations – then leave me alone to do it.)
  7. Make sure no surprises occur for them that you could have prevented or at least warned them about.
  8. Be very selective about how you use their time and resources for your needs.
  9. Read #1 again

Some key behaviors to consider before developing that relationship are:

  • You must be willing to speak up if you want to influence up. This is another example of the potential amount of risk equals the amount of gain. The Boss may not want to hear the bad news but, if you are thoughtful in your presentation of it, they may be very grateful for your information.

How willing are you to speak up to the Boss about situations in your organization?

What are some situations about which you would speak up?

Before speaking up, you should team up. If what you have to report may impact several others, it is useful to have them on your side to support what you are doing. They can add credibility to your issue. However, be careful to make sure they aren’t trying to use you to deliver bad news if the Boss is known for killing the messenger. They may be trying to manipulate you into doing their “dirty work.”

How willing would you be to team up with someone else?

With whom would you want to team up? How would you get them interested in working with you to bring up the situation?

  • Speak up without arguing up. Make sure you argue a different viewpoint using as much objective fact as possible. Do not become argumentative by basing your presentation on emotion or broad statements that have little value such as “everybody knows” or “it’s common knowledge that…”

One way in which issues of concern can be pushed up the organization is described by Dutton and Ashford (1993) as “issue selling.” If a particular issue concerns you, the employee, how can you escalate it upward so your Boss (and maybe even his or her Boss) devotes some of their limited time to address it?

Here are some considerations for packaging your concerns before sending them upward:

  • Alignment – Make sure the issue is aligned with something valued by the organization and aligned (reasonably) with your role and responsibility within the organization. For example, if you work in HR and bring up an accounting issue, there may be a stretch in the minds of some as to why you are bringing up an issue so far outside of your functional role.
  • Credibility – Does the issue and your presentation of it (instead of someone else) indicate a genuine concern for the Boss and the organization or does it appear as a self-serving gesture on your part?
  • Publicity – Present and set the issue in as public a forum as possible – meetings, face-to-face, emails, networks, conferences, or newsletters. The more who hear about it from you (or as your issue) increases the likelihood that it gets to the Boss’ agenda.
  • Solvability – Identify how it can be solved (ideally using internal resources) because issues that can’t be solved are ignored and you’ll be seen as wasting their time for listening and yours for addressing it in the first place.
  • WIIFT – “What’s-in-it-for-them” means you specify as clearly as possible the benefits of doing this. Topics such as redundancies (cost elimination), risk reduction, good will in the community, increased efficiencies leading to reduced costs and greater profits are all issues that would interest senior management.
  • Bundling – Bundle your new issue with others already being considered after you clearly link yours to the others. For example, offering to share your user knowledge of a new software application the organization is implementing will enhance your reputation as you piggy-back on a change that has already been approved.
  • Teamwork – This was identified earlier but is worth repeating here. The more people that you can get to support your idea means the greater the chance it will be noticed. (Also, the greater the chance someone may suggest improvements in your idea that make it look even better than you began with.)

Obviously, managing up takes skill, attentiveness, and practice but can be very rewarding for someone who wants to influence, but not sit in, the seats of power.

Richard (“Dick”) Grimes has used his 30+ years experience in training and operations management for private and public organizations as a foundation for his company, Outsource LLC.

Human Resource professionals can earn pre-approved, re-certification training hours by visiting his website, If they send an email to him after taking a course with the word “Ezine” in the subject line, they’ll get a $25 REBATE on the course.

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