The Fine Art of Managing UP!

Managing Up

Is it “managing up” or is it just brown-nosing?

Everybody manages his or her boss to some extent: there’s no way around it. Bosses are human beings too: imperfect and in need of help. At the same time, bosses have power over us, and their feelings and perceptions of us can influence pay, promotion, and even basic job security. Managing our relationships with our bosses is fraught with temptation and danger. At the same time, it’s one of the most important skills you need.

You can find any number of books on working for crummy or difficult bosses (it’s not for nothing that “B-O-S-S” spelled backward is “Double S-O-B”). Bad behavior on the part of people in authority can be hugely damaging. But the truth is that even the best boss can be a challenge at least on occasion. Even the best boss needs managing.

People often think that managing up is something you do to your boss, to get power over him and her, but that’s not the case. “Managing up” is something you do for your boss, and if you’re the boss, it’s something you wish more of your employees knew how to do. Managing, after all, is the art of getting work done through the agency of other people. If you need your boss’ help to succeed, you’re a manager. You need to act like one.

The difference between managing up and brown-nosing is simply this: managers get work done; brown-nosers manipulate people to get what they want. The key difference is in the goals you choose. Are you there to help your boss and your organization succeed, or are you just looking out for Number One?

The two categories aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, nor should they be. But they aren’t necessarily at odds, either. Doing what’s right for your boss and for the organization is very often the best way to get ahead. People who look out only for themselves and don’t care about the organizational consequences sometimes get short-term advantage, but more often suffer long-term consequences.

In our book Managing UP! (Sidewise Institute Press), we identified 59 different skills and techniques you can use to build a career-advancing relationship with your boss. They break down into a few categories: self-improvement, working with different styles and temperaments, managing organizational systems and procedures, building teams, and solving problems.

Self-improvement. Do good work, manage your time effectively, and build your skills. Take your job seriously, but take yourself lightly.

Working with styles and temperaments. Pay attention to the styles, preferences and pet peeves of your boss and others. Tolerate some bad moods and imperfect behavior — we’re all guilty. Learn how and when to fight, and when to leave well enough alone.

Managing organizational systems and procedures. Learn the paperwork. Prepare for meetings. Build relationships throughout the organization. Give solid feedback, both positive and negative. Pay attention to the politics of the organization, but avoid getting “political.” Pay attention to the hidden keys of status and the symbolic language of the organization.

Build teams. Teams are all the people you need — regardless of whether they work for you. Think of your boss as a customer. Learn to train others. Improve your skills at delegation. Build your skills in win-win negotiation. Build connections in other departments. Be a “goodmouther.”

Solve problems. Give negative feedback well. Be supportive, not competitive. Accept responsibility. Stand up for what you believe and need. Get organized. Sharpen your decision skills. Work on better communication. Develop a personal intelligence network in your organization.

These skills not only improve your relationship with your boss and higher ups, they also help the group and the organization succeed. Managing up isn’t just the smart thing to do — it’s also the right thing.

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