The science of managing up

How to influence outcomes when you’re not at the top

According to a recent survey by research group The Conference Board, “Developing the next generation of leaders is the third internal concern for CEOs globally.” Meanwhile, Slack’s recent Good Collaboration, Bad Collaboration report found that, “Ten percent of French respondents rated ‘hierarchy’ as a top personal challenge at work.”

There is a clear tension between these two realities. This disconnect shines a light on the fact that we often rely too much on people in leadership positions to make crucial decisions, which can exclude and possibly alienate most people in our organizations.

Employees need to feel that their input is heard and valued, but anyone in a report position knows that speaking up can feel uncomfortable. Sometimes, it’s downright intimidating. So we looked up a few experts to see what they had to say about the art and science of “managing up” and ways that managers can create a team culture that encourages two-way conversation.

What managing up is and isn’t

Managing up—the art of building a better relationship with your manager in order to influence decision-making—looks like a lot of different things. It can involve:

  • Keeping your boss on schedule
  • Bringing new information into the decision-making process
  • Suggesting innovative solutions to longstanding challenges 

It’s easy to think we only need to manage up if we are navigating a bad boss. But in truth, even a good boss needs managing. In fact, the best bosses are the ones who make space for input and direction from people regardless of their position in an org chart. 

“If we reframe followership from a power construct into a relational construct, we open up a wide world of choice and agency,” says Mary Abbajay, the author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss  “In a relationship, everybody has agency.”

Using this agency helps employees develop communication skills that will serve them in every aspect of their personal and professional lives. In making a case for managing up, Abbajay states, “Managing up allows you to practice navigating and influencing people who approach work differently than you.”

Know your boss

But it’s not enough to know that your boss works differently than you do. It’s also crucial to know how he or she works differently. This will help you not only identify the areas where you can fill in some crucial gaps, but it will also guide you in determining the best way to offer your perspective. 

Tips for understanding your boss

The quickest way to get additional context is to ask strategic questions, and pay close attention to the answers. 

  • Forbes contributor Dana Brownlee recommends asking things like, “What keeps you up at night?” and “What are your workplace/communication pet peeves?” as a good place to get started.
  • In 2013, Ivar Kroghrud, co-founder and former CEO of software company QuestBack, mentioned in a New York Times article that he had developed a one-page “user manual” that gives employees insights into his communication style and preferences. 
  • Remember: This doesn’t have to look like an interrogation, or take up hours of your boss’s time. You could ask strategic questions the next time you are in an elevator together, or suggest starting team meetings with a quick question that will help everyone learn to work better together. 

Asking for this information is likely to be illuminating. You might discover that your boss has external pressures you weren’t aware of, or prefers clarifying information over the phone rather than email. Once you have this context, delivering your message (aka managing up) becomes much less intimidating. 

“Upward communication that’s informed by your manager’s style puts you on the same page and can abate the jitters you might feel,” writes Shabnam Banerjee-McFarland of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, “because you’ve adapted to their expectations and communication style, making processes more streamlined and efficient.” 

Take initiative

Once you have determined the best way to connect and collaborate with your boss, you shouldn’t be passive about creating opportunities for that to happen. Taking a back seat can create unnecessary bottlenecks, as well as frustration and friction. Reports should instead bring both empathy and initiative to the situation.

“Often when I hear people complain about how often their managers cancel meetings with them,” Alison Green, the creator of work advice site Ask a Manager, writes in Slate, “when I dig further, it turns out that the employees themselves aren’t following up to reschedule. They’re leaving the ball in the boss’s already very busy court, and then getting frustrated that the meeting never happens.”

The manager’s responsibility

It can be dangerous to take too much initiative, however. On a recent episode of the Managing Up podcast, co-host Nickolas Means says, “I think every new manager has had some point in their career where they have said something off-handedly or hyperbolic and looked up a week later and a massive amount of work had happened as a result.” 

If this has happened, it’s probably because of some sort of communication breakdown, likely a combination of a manager not realizing the weight of their words and a report not feeling they were in a position to ask clarifying questions. 

To prevent these costly misunderstandings before they happen, there are things a manager can do to create a culture that encourages managing up. In her recent TedX talk Neuroscience of Empowering Leadership, Gabija Toleikyte talks about the qualities and impact of resonant leadership. 

To summarize, resonant leaders are self-aware, and know both their talents and their shortcomings. They don’t see themselves as better than the people who report to them. From a neurological perspective, the brain’s resonant network is what allows us to imagine future events, understand our own emotions and understand the cognitive space of others.  

“When we try to understand another person truly and deeply, we activate this network,” Toleikyte says.

The connection between resonant leadership and managing up

A look brain scans of people who are thinking about being managed in this way shows it sets off a release of the brain chemicals dopamine and oxytocin. The former is responsible for motivation, and the latter is linked to empathy, creativity and resilience. These are all key elements of managing up. 

Even with the most resonant boss, it might take you a while to feel comfortable with managing up. So many of us feel like it is our role to listen and not to question. You will have to let go of these misconceptions, for the sake of both your organization and your own career.  

By managing up, you can help your boss see your own unique qualities and position yourself as both a problem solver and a team player. Or even as someone who might do well with reports of their own. “If nothing else,” concludes Abbajay, “by managing up, you will learn what kind of manager you want to be and what kind of manager you don’t want to be.”

Internal communication is everyone's responsibility. Wenting Li, a Toronto-based illustrator, imagines internal communication as a massive loud speaker with workers on either side.
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