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Managing Up

post # 288 — January 19, 2007 — a Careers post

A few years ago, I asked some people what they wished they had learned earlier in their careers. One of the common topics was about how to manage your boss (or superior).

Here’s one such comment I receieved:

The main thing that I want young professionals to know is the importance of “managing up”. It is often a negelected skill and you need to learn it early. It means making sure your manager is aware of the big issues that are plaguing the team and possible topics that may be discussed at a management meeting he/she attends. It also involves filtering the less important details from the important so that your manager does not feel overwhelmed with information. The ability to recognize the important from the insignificant will help a young professional in his/her plight to becoming a successful professional.

I wrote about “managing up” in an earlier post when I gave some advice about the questions you need to ask when receiving an assignment.

But there are many other aspects. How do you get your boss to treat you well, or at least reasonably? How do you deal with over-demanding bosses?

OK, gang. Time for you all to play the game. Let’s make a thorough list here by completing the following sentence:

“To manage upwards effectively you should………”

Anybody want to play?


James Cherkoff said:

I’ll start! Make their job easier!

posted on January 19, 2007

Arnoud Martens said:

show respect decisions from your boss that affect you.

In the eyes of your boss there is a fine line between challenging, disagreeing and neglecting decisions. The best leaders are good followers.

posted on January 19, 2007

David (Maister) said:

What does this (usually) require, James? Remember, we’re trying o help out some relative novices here. How DO you make the boss’ job easier (in general?)

posted on January 19, 2007

Ken Hedberg said:

The comment you cite is similar to what I refer to as ‘no surprises’. It includes giving appropriate levels of detail on important developments to your superior, as your earlier commentator described. Other items:

To manage upwards effectively you should …

– Tell the truth, early and often. This can be really hard, and it’s tempting to ‘package’ new and surprising information or developments, especially those that may negatively affect performance. Give your unvarnished views, including your fears and concerns, though at the appropriate level of detail, as mentioned.

– Give positive recognition (yes, upwards). Your boss typically likely gets no more positive strokes than you do, and often fewer. It’s a common feature of rising in the organization. Let your boss know when they’ve done something well; there’s no better way to reinforce the aspects that work well than to say so.

– Encourage your boss to ask for feedback, and then have the courage to give them accurate feedback when asked (see ‘tell the truth’, above). It’s hard to give good feedback to someone with the ‘power of the purse strings’ over your department and career, but your boss cherishes feedback just as much as you do, and most likely gets even less.

posted on January 19, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Ken, you seem to be saying (very sensibly, I think) that a subordinate can use the SAME non-financial currencies that a boss can – appreciation, gratitude, recognition, fast-response. Great thought.

posted on January 19, 2007

James Cherkoff said:

Good ways to make their job easier are:-

– Bringing them problems with a few different solutions, but also with a little initial thinking and research on the different options.

– Offering to take on small tasks – without waiting to be asked.

– Choose your moment – and ask ‘is this a good time?’

– Be aware that you probably do not have the full picture.

– Listen more, ask questions.

– Don’t be afraid to follow up opportunities on your own – but know when to check-in.

– Don’t rely on your boss to QA your work. Get someone else (colleague, associate, secretary, partner) to read a document before it goes to your boss.

– Find out about what thyey are interested in outsiide of work. I once had a boss who was VERY scary but the moment I started talking about his football team he completely relaxed and enjoyed a little break from ‘the grind’.

– Be aware that your boss has a boss – and try and work out the criteria they are being judged by.

– Get to know their PAs – who will guide you as to when and how to handle them.

– Share a little bit of ‘canteen chatter’ – not gossip. You will be privy to things that they are not.

posted on January 19, 2007

Liz Zitzow said:

Number one: When your boss blows it, cover for them. Make ‘em look good.

An example: My boss was no where to be found an hour before meeting a potential client. Instead of having the PAs call with some lame excuse, I took the initiative to go the meeting in her place, telling them that her flight was unavoidably delayed (actually, she just forgot). I kept the client interested and happy until she came in an hour late to the meeting. Before she could speak (and make herself look bad), I asked how the trip was from Heathrow. She picked up my cue and rolled with it. Brilliant! Result? We got the client

Unintended additional result: Years later the lawyer who chaired the meeting remembered me as the person who made it happen, and refers 10% of my business to me today.

I second the PA comment – the PA can tell you if they’re in magnanimous mood today – or if they’re likelyy to shoot everything down.

posted on January 19, 2007

Shawn Callahan said:

To manage upwards effectively you should …

work out how your boss likes to receive their information and modify your natural tendencies to deliver it that way. For example, if your boss just likes dot points yet you tend to provide expansive descriptions, modify the way you communicate with her in a dot pointy way.

posted on January 19, 2007

Brendon Connelly said:

Great post and comments! One addition I’ve found that works well is to commit to brief weekly status report. The idea is to keep it brief, but to have a record across time of what’s on your plate and what kind of fires you’re putting out and problems you’re solving.

  • It’s proactive and keeps your boss in your loops
  • Your boss is automatically up to speed on your issues, and that makes them look better when their boss asks questions.
  • The report helps you keep track of your own outstanding issues
  • It provides subtle performance pressure for you, since it’s easy to see how issues have progressed.

I use Mindmanager on a Mac. My boss has Mindmanager on a PC. I just pass him the file each Friday. The mindmap format is super easy to update and generate.

posted on January 19, 2007

Jason Bates said:

“To manage upwards effectively you should………”

….be your boss for a few important moments a day”

Notice I did not say put yourself in their position. Frankly we are all different people, with a different views of the world, different instincts, and very different ideas about how things work.

Be them, and you’ll know what they want and value, then be you, and do it your way.


posted on January 21, 2007

Kathleen DeFilippo said:

To manage upwards effectively, you should…

  • respect your manager enough to disagree when s/he’s wrong (in private, though!).
  • find out what your boss’s pain points or challenges are, and then do what you can to eliminate/mitigate them.
  • when you or someone on your team makes a mistake, tell your boss about it before someone else does.
  • take responsibility for your actions (the good, the bad, and the ugly).

Great post, and there have been lots of terrific suggestions made by the other commenters.

posted on January 21, 2007

Mark Shead said:

A lot of people go into new positions with the idea that they need to manage the people beneath them. The assume their boss is competent and doesn’t need any managing.

By starting with the assumption that your boss will require just as much managing as your direct reports, you put yourself in a much better position to succeed.

posted on January 23, 2007

Adriana said:

To manage upwards effectively, you should

know what are the priorities and work on them!

posted on January 23, 2007

Adrian G. said:

Interesting ideas in the above comments …

I would add:

Try to understand your boss “style” and try to “deliver” in that style. Even sometimes your “style” might be different. And as different it is might be more difficult.

If your boss is more analytical he would like to see a huge excel of calculus in order to asses a certain course of action (you might think is crazy to lose so many hours for a small impact decision, but this is it). When he will have a problem he first try to understand why, which are the causes. Can you help him do that (don’t offer solutions yet, it is to early) ? When you deliver something he indirectly wants to be sure that you studied carefully (and a lot) all the aspects.

If your boss is more action oriented he would appreciate you to move quickly. He doesn’t like NATO=No action, Talk Only. He normally judge not the individual decision that you make (if you do it fast enough), but the percentage of good decisions in a portofolio. He wants to be in the middle of the game, and not a subtle commentator.

This I think means respect also (respect of his style and not requiring him to adapt to your style).

Some other ideeas work better or worse depending on the context: like (in)direct communication of issue/problems, frequently disagreeing or not to his points, discussing personal issues or not, etc.

In the end, I think there are also “ideas put in practice” that might be appreciated by all types of bosses, like: thinking to their actual needs (in relation to upper level, or to your collegues etc), always doing your homework (and helping them also without asking if they did their homework), being a reliable person etc.

I think all my comments above are good ideas only if you do your job well (preferably with passion).

If you are a lousy performer, using the above might be only manipulation. And better first think how to improve your performance and after that think to how to improve the relation with your boss.

posted on January 24, 2007

Tim Travers said:

Dear David,

I have only recently started my Blog over in the UK (Tim Travers Legal Reflections) and last weekend “Managing up” provided me with a great theme for a slant on this difficult subject from the world of sports coaching. Here is my Blog entry in full.

Five Point Strategy

I would like to offer a simple five point strategy, which I have lifted straight from the world of cricket coaching in England. If you have ever played any sport or coached or been coached, you will readily identify with the simplicity of this approach as most sports follow a similar pattern. The strategy is also offered as an alternative to more traditional business-generated concepts.

Brief Context

I was fortunate enough to go on the England & Wales Cricket Board’s Level III cricket coaching course in 2005. The course was an 8 day residential course at the ECB’s National Academy, which is based at Loughborough University, and it provided a great learning environment. It was up there with one of the best weeks of my life, but then again, I was doing something I am passionate about.

Level III is one of five levels of coaching standard and achievement in the English game. Levels IV and V are essentially the preserve of coaches at the professional end of the game in County and Test Cricket. Level III is nevertheless a pretty good standard and the high point of most coaches in the amateur or semi-professional end of the game. The Level III course is centred on the delivery of one-to-one coaching and is based around five core areas:

  • Technical.
  • Tactical.
  • Physical.
  • Mental.
  • Lifestyle.

Effective Coaching

An effective coach is one who is player-centred and not coach-centred and one who provides each player with a balance of coaching in each of the five areas.

To put the player in the centre, the coach generally asks lot of questions (and open questions rather than closed questions), and ensures an appropriate balance between telling (not too much) and asking.

Many sports players spend too much of their available training time on the technical aspects of the game (a good example to corroborate this is Humphrey Walters, guru to rugby union coach, Clive Woodward — see England’s sports teams can win in 2007 / 31 December 2006). A good coach must find time with his players to work on the other four aspects listed above, especially the tactical and mental sides of the game, and not forgetting the player’s lifestyle in which cricket (and any other sport played) must remain a balanced part.

Managing up

So, transferring this methodology to a young professional trying to manage his / her boss up, I would suggest the following four principles:

  1. Put the boss, rather than yourself, in the centre.
  2. Make the boss feel valued through your attention.
  3. Ask relevant open questions across each of the five areas (but clearly not all at once!).
  4. Ask open questions which trigger the boss to use their own self-awareness to become a better boss, and the answers or actions from which directly help you to learn more about your job and be more effective and productive.

Questions to ask

The following questions should not to be taken too literally. It is the broad theme of each question, which is the message I am trying to convey.

  • What makes the boss tick outside the office? (Lifestyle)
  • (Discretely) Does the boss tend to like colleagues / subordinates / clients who share the same interests? (Lifestyle)
  • What areas of work or which clients does the boss most enjoy and why? (Technical)
  • Does the boss like detail or only big picture or even both? (Technical)
  • What tricks does the boss use during a difficult face-to-face negotiation or on the phone? (Tactical)
  • What areas of business documentation or business process or continuing education or business development find the most difficult and why? (Technical)
  • What types of knowledge does the boss like to trade internally with fellow leaders in the organisation? (Tactical)
  • What technologies and organisation systems does the boss like using / not using and why? (Technical)
  • How does the boss keep fit for work and when are the best / worst times of the day for the boss / subordinate to fit in healthy activities? (Physical)
  • What tricks does the boss use to handle pressure situations? (Mental)
  • Does the boss dress differently for different aspects of the job and why is this important? (Physical)

And the list of questions / themes goes on.

I should stress that one is certainly not suggesting an interrogation each time you meet or work with the boss. In the same way a sports coach intervenes with the player only when appropriate, so the subordinate needs to pick the right moment, and be sufficiently streetwise to be ready to be present in a series of moments in and outside the office during the course of employment, to ask, to learn and then do.


These questions provide just a flavour, but the five main headings (Technical, Tactical, Physical, Mental and Lifestyle) are easily memorised, and can provide a natural trigger to ask the right question at the right time, especially when the boss may have time only for one question and time only for one answer.

posted on January 26, 2007

James T Gold said:

I must first commend the effort from David Maister for the site and all the activists (I meant all the people who are sincerely blogging their way and sharing their thoughts, no pun intended!). Great Job, guys.

Coming to the point of ‘Managing Up':

I have read through various thoughtful comments, situations /scenarios that have been put up here. They are thought provoking as well as make one wonder what, how much and how long all this can be done. At the same time, quite a few of them sound simply too nice to be agreed with or followed up on. The suggestions make this problem-solving in a parametrical fashion, like, If ‘A’, then do ‘Aa’, ‘Ab’, et.al. The suggestions would be fine as long as they deal with a realistic situation. Otherwise, it’s easy to write on an ideal scenario. Just imagine, what would “Dilbert” think when he reads up all this. Hope, you get the picture. In a way, the steps in various such lists (as above) tell you what they would teach you in an Organizational Behavior class at a B-School, which is the very important point that David is trying to avoid in this website or through his column. And that is ‘no theory’. I think this is what the motto is of the website. David, is that a correct inference?

To elaborate, let me put a twister to the commonly projected situation here:

Most of the ideas of dealing with your Master (I meant, the boss) sound theoretical. The basic assumption here is that the BOSS “is a straight-jacket bloke who probably doesn’t know you well”, “can be pleased with some effort”, “exists without any ulterior motives attached”, and not but the least and most important, “doesn’t already have cronies who are trying to do the same as you and would certainly outdo you, if you are trying afresh”. To carry out the suggested steps assumes that there is no competition to you, when you are trying to please (oops, manage) your boss. Any self-respecting individual would not do most of the things suggested here, except may be one thing.

And that is, “Tone down the criticism a little bit and take it up in private with one’s boss if one has to”. But, it is very easy to even think of, forget about adapting it. Especially in a situation, where the boss is quite political in nature, more comfortable with his/her sycophants/parasites, defies logic in more things than normal, hides/manipulates information frequently, somewhat whimsical in decision making, can’t take criticism even in private, creates situations to make you uncomfortable, de-motivates / de-moralizes, the list goes on and on with lots of such bright qualities (J). It not that the Grass is greener on the other side and the common employee who is at the receiving end of it, doesn’t comprehend a business/technical situation that would justify such a behavior. To be fair with the Boss, there may be quite a few such things that he has to manage. But, what I am talking about is what happens more frequently and to the larger majority of employees (people who report to the boss), than an exception.

To make it worse, Boss’s Boss (for brevity, the Top-Boss) can’t also do much to intervene or improve the situation for a common employee. It’s not a situation where the Top-Boss doesn’t fully agree with an employee or anything like that. It is just that, the Top-Boss finds himself/herself in a tight-spot and wouldn’t take the bait, for reasons of business or otherwise.

This is a common situation faced by lots of lots of people in the fraternity of employees and is prevalent everywhere in the world. Please recall that this is the very reason of having a discussion on the topic of “Managing Up”. Otherwise, no one would need to discuss common-sense at all. And that is precisely the reason for my comments. Pardon me, if I have upset some people. But, this is not the intent. Let’s say, it is just a tough question (“How to Manage Up?”) for me to answer.

Although it may be too late in the post as far as this article is concerned since it originated in Jan’07, I would still humbly invite you all to put some sense in my brain. And I really think, I have one. One solution would be to quit in a situation like this and look for a “more compliant/open boss”. But, that’s not what fighters do.

Looking forward to your thoughts. May be some day, who knows a B-School may pick-up this story to make a Case-study out of this…



posted on November 17, 2007