How To Manage Your Manager

Most of us are reporting to someone. We have a boss. It might be the first line manager, director, vice president, CEO, or a board of directors. One could even say that the customer is our ultimate boss but I won’t go that far in this article. Let’s stay with the person above you in the organizational structure of a company.

The common logic is that the manager manages the team. The less common view, but as much important, is that the employee also needs to manage his or her manager. Why? We are not slaves. We are all human beings with the same basic rights. Only we ourselves are responsible for taking care of our needs. The manager may have a positional power over us but that doesn’t mean we just follow orders. In this article, I will describe what you can do to manager your manager, why it is important, and how it can help both of you to be successful.

Managing up versus sucking up

Managing up has a certain negative connotation. Often confused with sucking up to your boss. However, these two terms couldn’t be more different. Sucking up really means that you are the “yes man”. You are doing everything in your power to please the boss, to appear in the best light, and earn some plus points. Your hope is that by being favorite “pet” you will gain some privileges not available to others who don’t suck up. This means that you don’t shy away from throwing others under the buss if it helps to improve your own image.

This is obviously unhealthy behavior. It may work in short term to advance your career but it will definitely destroy your reputation, kill your long-term prospects, make the team dysfunctional and ultimately make you entirely dependent on the good graces of your boss instead of on your own skills and effort.

In contrast, managing up is an ability to talk to your boss as an equal. He or she is your partner in getting the work done and in fulfilling company’s mission. Managing up is about setting boundaries and rules on how you and your manager work together. It is about agreement how you stay in dialog, how you set priorities, how you keep each other informed and how you hold each other accountable. It is about understanding the needs of the other person and helping them to achieve their goals.

Setting boundaries

The first thing to do is to sit with your new manager and talk about how you will work together. You want to understand how your boss works, what are his general expectations in terms of updates, reports, escalations. You should clarify the level of details he wants to be involved in. You should talk about whether he wants to be informed when you need to talk to his management or to other departments. You should agree on “no surprises” rule. Nothing is more embarrassing for your boss when he is being confronted by his manager with something you have done and he has no clue. You can read more on this topic in No Surprises In Management Please.

You should also talk about how you work and whether it is compatible with your manager’s expectations. Especially in today’s hectic environment, you should clarify what level of availability and responsiveness is expected.

The boundaries conversation also needs to tackle the topic of feedback. How you give each other feedback? Being it work related or developmental. This may be tough to do on the very first meeting but it is important to indicate that you appreciate any feedback your manager is willing to give you and that you are also available to provide feedback when asked.

Setting communication rules

Agreeing on how your manager expects to communicate with you is probably the most important conversation to have. Each of us is used to different communication channels, may have different way how we receive and process information, and may be used to different way of communication from previous job or even from other colleagues.

It is important to agree with your manager on what communication channel is preferred for what information. For example, you may agree that normal updates are best over emails to read at his or her own leisure, but any escalations or concerns should be communicated face to face or over the phone. This agreement is extremely important when you have a remote boss, and hyper important when he or she sits in a different time zone. You can read more on the topic in So You’ve Got A Remote Boss. Tricky.

You can be very flexible and adjust to the needs of your boss with one big exception. Never agree to not communicate! You need to build a solid relationship and that will not happen when you or your boss are avoiding interactions. If your manager says that there is no reason to talk regularly, insist on it anyway. You can appeal to his ego by asking for help, acknowledging you can learn from him, or just state plainly that it would help you grow and you feel a regular contact will help build good relationship between two of you. If you talk with your boss only when there are problems your relationship will have a significantly negative undertone. You need to take 100% responsibility for making the relationship work.

I personally have a tendency to over-communicate with my managers so the conversation I would have with any new boss is along the lines, “I’m used to copying my boss on all emails that may be eventually brought to your attention. I don’t necessarily expect you to read them, but I want to make sure you have them available if your manager or someone from other departments asks. If I need your help I will specifically indicate that in the subject of the email. Does this work for you?”

As you see I’m not asking “How do you want me to communicate?” since it would put me in a passive role of the one who needs to adjust. By proactively describing how the communication could look like you ensure your voice is heard and needs fulfilled. The boss can always say “no”. In my case, sometimes the answer was, “works for me.” Sometimes the answer was, “no need, just include me when you need help.” Regardless of the answer, it helped manage the expectations.

Setting goals, priorities and check-points

This is not article about goals and priorities setting so I’m listing it here just for completeness. Having clearly set goals, understood priorities, and agreed upon check-points is critical for healthy, surprise free, working relationship. You may check some of my thoughts on the topic in The Puzzle Of Performance Goals and How To Make SMART Goals Smarter.

Asking for help

One of the key things your boss can do for you is to remove obstacles. In fact, you will read this in almost every book about leadership that leaders are here to show vision and then get out of the way. The only time when they should step in is to remove roadblocks so you can achieve the agreed goals.

This means that you need to have a clear understanding with your boss about what level of issues he or she can help you with. It can be a very general statement along the lines of “when you run into something you can’t figure out let me know and I will help you.” It can be also something much more specific, “once you are ready to present the proposal to the CEO let me know so we review it together and then I can help you by pushing it from my side.”

The key is to have a clearly stated agreement with your manager that it is fine to ask for help and it won’t be held against you.

Offering help

To paraphrase JFK “don’t ask what your manager can do for you, ask what you can do for him”. Why? Good relationships are all about trust. How do you build trust? There are couple of ways to do it, but the basic one is to make sure that the other person sees that you have his wellbeing on top of your mind. If you accomplish that, chances are he will reciprocate.

When your boss sees that you are willing to help him solve his problems it dramatically increases the trust he has in you. He will trust your skills, your loyalty, and ultimately will find you indispensable. The common sense says that when you are indispensable you are in much better negotiation position to get what you need. When you can easily show the value you provide, it has a direct impact on your ability to get the next interesting project, the next promotion, the raise, or the freedom to work the way you want.

You don’t need to do much. Just asking whether there is anything you can help with, will do the trick. Even better approach may be to get clues from what was discussed or what you already know your manager is working on and ask if you can help with that specific problem. In long-term, the best approach is to ask about his or her priorities. Every now and then, I would ask my boss about what his top priorities for the next couple of months are and then see if I can bring some value and solve his problems for him, or at least contribute to the solution.

The beautiful side effect of this practice is that you are getting opportunities to do parts of your manager’s job and that allows you to learn new skills and expand your job. In simple terms, it allows you grow. You don’t need to wait on anyone to give you these opportunities. It is you, who is enabling this growth for yourself!

The next time you have a conversation with your manager don’t talk only about your needs and what you need from him. Before you end the conversation just ask a simple question “is there anything I can help you with?”


How important do you believe is managing your manager? How do you manage your manager? What tools are you giving your team so they can manage you?

Originally posted at LinkedIn.