How to Effectively Manage Up

The employee-boss relationship is often a one-way street, but it doesn’t have to be. Employees have an important role to play in creating an open dialogue, setting expectations, exploring opportunities, analyzing challenges and creating the agenda. Just as bosses must manage down, employees must also manage up.

Building a mutually beneficial working rapport can be difficult, as the boss has a high degree of control over the employee’s career and advancement opportunities. This can make for an extremely lopsided relationship, so employees must be careful to work with, not against, the boss.

Managing up isn’t about political gain or changing someone’s personality. It begins with the employee having a good understanding of his or her strengths, weaknesses, goals and working style, and using that insight to build a strong working relationship that considers the boss’s objectives and preferences. A boss can’t succeed without a good employee, and conversely, a good employee can’t succeed without a good boss.

Look for Communication Styles

Does the boss opt for short updates, long emails or face-to-face meetings? Does he or she like real-time information to make quick decisions, or does he or she wait to see if trends emerge in the big picture? Knowing how the boss prefers to receive information is the first step in understanding his or her communication style.

Mismatched communications styles can hamper the employee-boss relationship. Author Mark Murphy identifies four communication styles: analytical, intuitive, functional and personal. Analytical communicators like hard data, intuitive communicators don’t need details, functional communicators are concerned with process and personal communicators want to know how people feel. The key to resolving communication issues for employees to adapt to the style the boss prefers.

Focus on Strengths, Not Weaknesses

Bosses are human beings, and they have weaknesses. However, it’s hard to change someone’s managerial style, so employees should look at what the boss does well and try to build upon it. Famed management expert Peter Drucker once said: “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence.”

Build Trust

One of the most important parts of managing up is to show the boss that the employee is worthy of his or her trust. There are several methods to demonstrate trustworthiness to a boss, including:

  • Understanding the boss’s goals
  • Anticipating the boss’s needs
  • Honor the boss’s time
  • Under-promise and over-deliver

    Identify the Boss Type

    There are several kinds of bosses an employee might encounter in his or her career. Knowing the boss’s personality type can help the employee determine the best way to interact. Some boss types include:


    Boss Type Description Tips to Manage Up
    The New Boss Still learning the ropes, but probably knows what he or she wants to accomplish and is seeking allies for change. Listen and collaborate, and set expectations early in the relationship.
    The Virtual Boss Works remotely, so it’s difficult to build a face-to-face relationship. Establish clear goals and expectations, and try to build a social connection.
    The Insecure Boss A fragile ego requires special care. Provide reassurance.
    The Indecisive Boss Some are perfectionists; others don’t want to mess with the status quo. Be transparent and try to address all the unknowns.
    The Competitive Boss This boss competes against his or her employees. Build trust through transparency.
    The Mean Boss Little or no empathy. If the boss is demanding, identify his or her drivers and always take the high road. If bullying is a problem, document the issues and go to HR.
    The Peter Principle Boss Managers might be promoted beyond their level of competence. Speak up, look for the boss’s strengths, set clear expectations and seek clarification.
    The Vague Boss Doesn’t provide clear direction. Ask follow-up questions; provide a summary of action steps and ask for review.


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