Managing up

We usually expect top-down management. So it is not obvious why we need to manage relationships upward. The thing is, your manager has a lot more different things on their (work) plate than you. Your manager is probably overwhelmed. They do not have time and capacity to keep track of all the great work that you do, especially if you work remotely. They cannot be aware of all the things that need their attention. They do not get all the feedback they need to do their job better. So this is where you come in.

Managing up is the process of consciously working with your manager to obtain the best possible results for you, your manager, and your organization

Thomas Zuber and Erika James

Managing up helps you get the resources and buy-in you need to do your best work for your manager and your company. It is about doing your part to foster a strong relationship with your manager, so you can get things done. It will help them think highly of you, advocate for you, and advance your career.

Why should you bother?

Managing up is good for everyone. Having a positive relationship with your manager makes your work life much easier. Doing so well will:

  • Increase your manager's trust in you
  • Improve your communication and make it easier
  • Help you perform better and be more productive
  • Help you achieve your goals
  • Improve your opportunities for career progression and professional development
  • Develop your leadership skills

So what can you do?

Build a relationship

Get to know your manager. Start by building a picture of your manager. Make sure you understand your manager and their context. This means understanding their goals and objectives. What motivates them? What is it they ultimately trying to do at this company? It means knowing what do they value most (personally and professionally)? It means realising the pressures of their role. What stresses them? What pressure are they under?

You should also consider your manager's strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots. Strengths that you can learn from them. Weakness and blind spots that you can complement them and help them.

You should consider your manager's communication style. Do they seem to prefer talking in person or over email? Do they make decisions based more on data or hunches? How are they receptive to feedback? Do they prefer brief updates or longer conversations?

If you don't know the answers to these questions, consider them as ideas for a conversation with your manager.

You should also self reflect and answer these questions for you. With a clear understanding of both your manager and yourself, you can establish a way of working together that fits both of you. A way of working with unambiguous mutual expectations. A way of working that helps you both be more productive and effective. Understanding your manager's expectations of you makes it easier to deliver on those expectations.

Manage expectations on both sides

Align with your manager on their expectations for your performance. This means understanding how you are being reviewed by your manager.

You might be responsible for designing and implementing team-level technical solutions. Confirm with your manager what that means. Does it mean you will guide the team to improve code structure and maintainability? Or scope flexible technical solutions? Or anticipate technical uncertainties? Or break down work into smaller chunks?

Or, you might be responsible for improving your team's level of customer response. Does that mean the language we use to talk to customers? Does it mean providing new templates or updating documentation? It could mean identifying training or researching software that will help.

Whatever your role is, confirm what is expected of you.

Also align with your manager on what the current priorities are. When business priorities are not clear the team is unsure what they should be working on. It is the responsibility of the manager to set the priorities (in collaboration). But it is your responsibility to make sure you understand them, what needs to be done, and why.

On the other side, manage your manager's expectations by keeping them up to date on your tasks. This means aligning on work tasks, when they are due, the expected quality of work, and how progress updates are shared.

So, how do you stay aligned? Communication!

Communicate clearly

Communication needs to be two way. Top down provides focus and contest. Teams up provide insight, information, and practical feedback of implementation


This is a two-way relationship. You need to consider how, what, and how often to communicate.

Everyone has a preferred communication channel, whether it is face to face or in text. Everyone has different communication styles. Some require prior reflection. Others prefer to think out loud while they brainstorm ideas. Observe how your manager prefers to communicate — and follow suit. Whatever your manager's preferences are, pay attention, and match your communication to their style. Just like they should be paying attention to, and matching, yours.

Your manager cannot read your mind. You need to:

  • Communicate your own needs and goals clearly
  • Provide adequate information to keep your manager informed
  • Relay good and bad news
  • Explain your blockers and recommend a solution. Make sure there is enough data to support your recommendation.
  • Represent yourself. Help your manager understand your impact. Track it, measure it, and share it with your manager.

How often do you communicate with your manager? Check with your manager how often should you do have regular check-ins and status updates. Use these check-ins to align on what they are looking for from you and how they believe you are doing in those areas.

Provide feedback

If leaders do not know how they are perceived, their performance will suffer.

John Baldoni

This is true for anyone but let's focus on giving feedback to your manager. Working closely with them provides you with insights into their performance. But however valuable these insights are, it can be daunting to share it with your manager. The ability to do so depends on the relationship and level of trust you have with your manager. If trust is lacking, providing constructive feedback is not recommended.

Ideally, your manager will request feedback from you. When do they, take the opportunity to provide them with your feedback. Always ask for consent before providing feedback.

With positive feedback, help your manager to know when they're doing something well. Be specific, and reinforce the patterns you wish to see more of.

With constructive feedback, focus on how their behaviour impacts your ability to deliver for them. Focus on facts, behaviours you wish to redirect, and how they can improve (rather than what they are doing wrong). Lastly, focus on what can change in the future, rather than on past behaviour.

Own your one:ones

A one:one is your meeting. Take advantage of that. If you don't already have a shared agenda, ask for one. Use it as a place to record the topics discussed and the actions each of you agree to take (and that you've both taken them!) You can also use it as a way to record significant achievements to reflect on later for career development and performance conversations.

Review the relationship and make refinements

Even when you and your manager work well together, never take the relationship for granted. Like any significant relationship between two people, it requires nurturing and regular reflection. Periodically, answer the following questions:

  • Do I know what my manager's priorities and pressures at the moment? What can I do to support my manager more effectively?
  • Do I know what my manager expects of me? Are their expectations realistic? Are we aligned?
  • Do I meet those expectations? Do they know what resources I need to meet those expectations?
  • How much does my manager know about what I've been working on? And if not, how do I correct that?
  • How well do we get along? Do we have any issues we should address? How can I make our communication more effective? What can I do to increase our level of trust?

One last thought to take away, All the above ideas are also valid to managing relationships with your peers across the organisation.

Key takeaways

  • This is a two-way relationship
  • Understand your manager’s priorities and pressures
  • Manage expectations on both sides
  • Communicate clearly in a compatible way and more than you think
  • Own your one:ones
  • Review the relationship and make refinements

Would you like to know more?

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