Even high-performing rebels need to ‘manage up’. Can you?


As a rebellious, authority-hating, young professional, the best advice I ever got was that I needed to learn how to ‘manage up’. The skill has helped me sail through difficult conversations and relationship bottlenecks. I have been able to gladly survive managers and leaders who were on the opposite end of the spectrum on everything – from how we managed our teams to how we engaged our clients.

Naturally, my first question when it was pointed out to me that ‘managing up’ was a skill I needed was, “What on earth is it?”

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According to Harvard Business Review, “managing up” is the art and science of being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company. That's why the best path to a healthy relationship begins and ends with doing your job, and doing it well.

That sounds easy, doesn’t it? But often, we are so taken in by rigid hierarchical structures, or hate the authoritative natures of our managers so much, that we forget that all we need to really do is to be effective and do our jobs well. Often, this takes behavioural changes on our part too, not just our bosses and leaders.

It is true that your boss could be anyone, from a micromanager, to easy-going but extremely lazy, a credit stealer, or even an inspiration, someone you would want to emulate in your career. Practically speaking, you can exercise very little choice in the managers and leaders you work with. What you can control is what you make out of the situation. Do you flee at the first opportunity, even though you really enjoy your work? Do you stay, deliver, and make the relationship work just as much as it needs to for you to be effective in your role? In most cases, the latter is easily doable if you can learn how to manage up.

But how does one manage up?

The first step to managing up is the ability to see bosses as flawed, fallible human beings. It was also one of the early people management mistakes I made in my career. I put such a high premium on people’s professional experience that I ended up believing that if they are bosses, leaders, and managers, they shouldn’t do anything wrong. I expected every conversation I ever had with them to add value to my own professional skills and personal values. I was looking at it all wrong! Maybe you are too. Workplaces are a microcosm of society and it takes all kinds of flawed individuals to make it one. These could be people from extremely different conditioning and backgrounds from your own, their motivations could be different, and personality flaws are not just allowed, they are usually a given.

Once you have internalized this, it becomes a little easier to treat your boss like just another client. You do what you need to because of your own ambitions and accountable nature, even if you’d rather not.

An important aspect of managing up is being able to identify your manager’s motivations. What drives him? What worries him? What makes him insecure? Why is he a micromanager? This could mean a few assumptions here and there, but if you can find a way to shape your interactions with your boss in a way that makes him comfortable or is better aligned with his personal values, you will earn his trust sooner than you know.

Keep your boss informed, even if he/she doesn’t need to be involved in all team decisions. This is crucial in order to remove insecurities from the equation and make your relationship with your manager that much healthier. Set up some time once a week to give him an update on everything you are working on, how your team is shaping up, how the last interaction with an important client went, etc. Own up to mistakes but bring corrective action to the table, present solutions along with challenges, and in general, give him fewer reasons to doubt or question your performance. This also gives you a chance to include your manager’s professional experience and perspective in the decision-making process. You couldn’t possibly know everything! We expect our leaders to be humble and take our experience and opinions into consideration. It is only fair that we return the favour.

While reflective communication is a good way to earn trust, does that mean you “give it back” just like you receive it? The high road works wonders. Another piece of advice I got as a young professional was that in times of heated arguments, if one person is going to storm out of the room, don’t let it be you. I live by it! Your boss’s bad behaviour can’t be a reason for you to behave badly too. You could be starting a vicious cycle from which there is no getting away.

But does that mean you shouldn’t stand up to your boss even when he/she is being completely unreasonable? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. All it means is that you need to stay objective and focus on a common end goal. Name-calling, gossiping, storming out of meeting rooms, and writing nasty emails will not solve anything. But if you calmly and objectively explain your perspective, your words will have more value than they would if you threw a tantrum. Consider the last time your boss engaged in a rant or scream session. Did you take it seriously? The same applies to you too. There is absolutely no reason to cower to bullies or just about anyone else. But learning how to say your piece or voice your opinion without childish tantrums is an art everyone needs to learn to deliver effectively and maintain healthy interpersonal dynamics and work environment. Your boss may not have picked up on the skill, but you definitely can.

But I am no sycophant!

Nobody is asking you to be one. There is nothing more annoying than a yes-man. But learning to say no without fighting over it, being able to see your boss as an average flawed human being, and understanding his/her motivations is not sycophancy. It is a mature adult’s way of dealing with challenging individuals, relationships, and conversations. It is about knowing that every person on the team has a role to play. A sound professional understands the concept of shared goals – between bosses and teams, and employers and employees. He/she understands the value of listening deeply to diverse perspectives in order to reach these goals. You don’t have to be a leader or boss to do it – you can start as early as the first day of your career!

Healthy and strong team dynamics are not just the responsibility of bosses, managers, and leaders. It is everyone’s job to enable them. It is neither sycophancy nor pandering to authorities. It is only about being a sound professional, irrespective of your designation or length of experience.

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