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Help your boss help you: Learn to ‘manage up’

By Nick Wilson | |7 minute read

Good management is a two-way responsibility. How can employees learn how to “manage up”?

Only 51 per cent of employees feel that their manager’s leadership style matches the way they like to be managed, according to research from SEEK.

While understanding the preferences and needs of your employees is generally well understood as a principle of effective management, employees carry some responsibility, too. According to Megan Dalla-Camina, founder and chief executive of Women Rising, effective managing up is a feature of healthy manager-employee relationships.

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“Managing up is typically about managing your manager,” said Ms Dalla-Camina. “Cultivating a positive relationship with your manager by learning to manage up effectively is a powerful way to have more agency in your career.”

Today, we’re asking how an employee can build a good relationship with their employer and how to strike a balance between managing up and managing down.

Making your values known

Effective managers understand the values of their employees. While it is incumbent on the manager to inquire, employees can help by being more willing to share.

“Managers should recognise the way their employees work and adapt to their needs – but often, they’re unaware of what they are. That’s where talking about it can help,” said Leah Lambart, career coach at Relaunch Me.

Only 49 per cent of employees feel comfortable talking to their manager about their preferences. Employee openness around management preferences will likely require an employer to build a culture of openness and collaboration.

As noted in a recent HR Leader article: “When we live in alignment with our values, we’re energised. When we’re not acting in alignment with them, it’s very draining,” said Kelly Michael, co-founder of Map of Me and Human Link.

Misalignment in the values of employers and employees can “often make itself known through anxiety, stress, depression, and burnout”, Ms Michael added.

In sharing management preferences, Ms Lambart said employees should do the following:

  • Understand your preferences.
  • Request the chance to talk.
  • Keep the conversation positive.
  • Make sure to follow up.

For those employees who might feel less comfortable opening up about their management preferences, a test or assessment may help.

“What’s really important [in sharing your preferences] is that it doesn’t get personal. It’s just recognising the differences and focusing on what type of working style or communication style you need to perform at your best,” said Ms Lambart.

Neutral, constructive language can be more effective than targeted criticism.

With a shared understanding of management and communication preferences, Ms Dalla-Camina recommends the following ways to effectively “manage up”:

1. Understand your managers’ or stakeholders’ goals

Being an effective “managee” is all about understanding the expectations of your manager. As said by Jeff Smith, director of the Best-Self Academy, in an article for SHRM, employee expectations are best understood early – from the outset of a working relationship.

When expectations are unclear, Ms Dalla-Camina said, “set up a meeting to get crystal clear on what’s expected of you, so you can better understand your priorities and how they roll up to overall business success”.

2. Be proactive

“Nobody likes to be caught off-guard by unwanted surprises,” said Ms Dalla-Camina. “It helps to develop the skill of anticipating problems as well as your manager’s needs.”

Being proactive requires foresight. Understanding the organisation you work for, the different components and people involved and the wider context in which the organisation operates can all help to become more proactive. Forbes, for example, recommends doing the following to become a more proactive employee:

  • Be curious.
  • Get to know people in other functions within your organisation.
  • Ask questions.
  • Connect the dots.
  • Make a conjecture, and then test it.

3. Own your mistakes and give regular work updates

Being open about mistakes is a key quality of strong managers and employees. While mistakes are inevitable, consequent damage to your reputation as an employee is not. As noted by Dina Denham Smith in an article for Harvard Business Review: “Remember that mistakes and setbacks are normal, and failure offers us an opportunity to learn.”

“If you mess up at work, don’t duck, cover and self-flagellate. Instead, use strategies to remedy the situation, rebuild trust, and repair your reputation,” said Ms Denham Smith.

Giving regular updates – the good, the bad, and the wholly uninteresting – can reduce the pressure felt when communications are reserved for triumphs or failures.

“A practical tool is to send a weekly email to your manager on a Friday afternoon that clarifies what you’ve been working on that week,” said Ms Dalla-Camina.

“This strategy will ensure your manager always knows where you are at. It also helps to open a conversation around competing priorities, seek support or guidance and set boundaries if required.”

To learn more about Ms Dalla-Camina’s workplace strategy, click here.

RELATED TERMS

Employee engagement

Employee engagement is the level of commitment people have to the company, how enthusiastic they are about their work, and how much free time they devote to it.

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson

Nick Wilson is a journalist with HR Leader. With a background in environmental law and communications consultancy, Nick has a passion for language and fact-driven storytelling.