Q: What does it mean to “manage up”? My manager and I don’t always work well together, but I just do what he asks because I assume that’s what a good employee should do. What does successful managing up look like and do I need to start doing it?
A: Managing up is most easily understood if you picture information gathered in a 360 review: People who report to you comment on your skills as a manager, your colleagues report on how they see you as a manager, and the person you are managed by also reviews your interactions. Recognizing the behaviors and actions that your manager wants to see is the whole concept of managing up. Should you start managing up? Absolutely. If you don’t do this well, your job will be at risk. If you do this TOO well, your colleagues may not enjoy working with you. Successfully managing up means asking questions, adding value, and making sure your manager’s job is easier than it would be with someone who only does what they’re told. Look for opportunities to add value in your role, your department, and for your manager.
Why don’t you and your manager don’t work well together? Is it a communication issue? Should you meet more regularly? Do you both need to dedicate more time to ensuring that you’re aligned on the desired outcomes of a task or project? Or could it be because you only do what she asks instead of analyzing what really needs to be done? This is a two-way conversation and you should both take steps to remedy the situation. Your manager may currently be providing only basic directions on tasks because he assumes that you’re taking the extra step to add the value that you should be adding. But this approach only goes so far, especially if you aren’t aware of the behaviors and actions your manager wants to see from you. When you tell a kid to clean their room, they shove all their stuff in the closet or under the bed—and they technically did what they were told. But there’s a difference between doing what you’re told and getting the real desired outcome. If you aren’t sure, ask your manager to clarify what they’re really looking for. If he says, “I want you to increase your sales activity,” that’s easy enough—but if you’re not increasing your sales, you’ve misunderstood what the desired outcome was supposed to be.
Not being able to manage up can be career threatening, but being able to manage up insincerely can be annoying. If you manage up “too well,” your actions will be considered obsequious. You don’t want your manager thinking that you’re sucking up—that becomes obnoxious to them and to your peers. People who only manage up and don’t care about managing their collegial relationships or their relationship with their direct reports will not do well in the long run, and senior people will see right through these attempts. You want leaders to view you as being invested and trying to add value. Doing what your manager asks is a good start to your working relationship and professional success, but a good employee adds value beyond basic expectations.
So, the next time your manager asks you to take on a task, take a moment to reflect on and interpret what you’re truly being asked to do and what might add value to the objective. If needed, clarify with your manager—this will help you both work more effectively together, and improve your relationship in the future.