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More Tips and Tricks for Managing Upwards

Bob Little 

June 10, 2016

Whenever this topic arises with a team, people will talk about the “boss from hell,” or the traits that drive them wild and that can eventually lead them to leave an organization. The adage that “people don’t leave jobs, they leave their boss” has never seemed more true.

But it takes two to tango. This “leader-follower” relationship needs an investment of time and thought to get right.

When you get a new leader or start a new role, you may be lucky. You get on well pretty much straightaway. Quality opportunities and development come your way. Work’s a breeze. Your boss will be graced with intuitive skills of leadership far above the norm. If so, hang on in there.

But if not – what can you do?

First, you need to escape all the emotion and simply have a think. Ask someone whom you respect and know pretty well to act as an objective sounding board for you.

Talk through the issues honestly and openly with him or her. Say what you want to achieve. Remember, you may think that you’re being rational and calm. But your sounding board may hear and see someone acting irrationally, fighting his leader every step of the way.

Could you be part of the problem? Are you prepared to change? If not, and things are too bad, is it time to dust off the resume and move on? But if you decide to stick in there, you need to change your approach to make things work better.

Before we list our top 12 tips to get you started, ask yourself, “What do leaders expect of their immediate followers/reports at work?” At its simplest, the answer’s surprisingly easy – it’s all about communication and trust.

Leaders need to be confident in knowing that their instructions, requests and interventions are responded to in a timely, appropriate fashion, and that their followers report back on progress at agreed intervals. Similarly, they need to know that the followers are responding in a similar way to issues that come directly to them and raise any issues/concerns with the leader (proposing appropriate solutions where possible).

It’s a process. It can be refined and improved, but it’s still a process.

Start with four key questions:

  • What is my manager ultimately trying to achieve?
  • How does my manager measure success/failure?
  • What would my manager like more/less of on a daily basis?
  • What keeps my manager awake at night?

Getting answers to these queries could involve asking your boss some questions. This act alone demonstrates a willingness to shift your approach, especially combined with some active listening skills. Then:

Work relentlessly to build trust

Once trust is broken, it’s difficult to get it back. Managers can have long memories when they think things have been damaged. They’ll be nervous of a repeat, especially if an account was lost or embarrassment was caused. But, in our experience, most managers are forgiving. They don’t want to go through the hassle of discipline and worse.

Remember your manager’s “pet peeves”

Understand your manager’s preferred communication style. Adapt your style to hers. Does she prefer texts, emails, speaking, and so on? What MS packages does she prefer? We can point to a finance director who insisted on communicating via complex Excel charts – an approach that only added to the simmering conflict between him and the organization’s managing director.

Don’t dump problems upwards

Don’t increase your manager’s workload unnecessarily. If you’ve a problem or a decision that you need his input on, suggest some approaches before you pass it upwards, so he can see that you’ve given it some thought.

Hit all the deadlines that you’ve agreed

Follow through on commitments. If you’re not going to make a deadline, give plenty of warning. If you’ve over-promised, admit the mistake – quickly – and outline what you’re going to do to rectify the mistake. Give your manager time to react and don’t assume that she isn’t going to notice if you don’t alert her to a potential issue. In our experience, managers almost always do.

Be insistent

There are times when you need to get something seen and/or passed by your manager. He may be giving off signals that he’s extremely busy and it will take time and resilience to see him.

If you know you need that “airtime” with him, be crisp and clear about what you want him to do. If you can’t get to see him, make a brief case in writing – be specific, say what will or won’t happen if you don’t get something sorted or done by a specific deadline. Keep it friendly and don’t get personal. Never express your frustration to him in writing.

Look for ways to continue to add value to the team/organization

Are there things vital to the team that you do uniquely well? Is this something that’s important to your manager and something that you enjoy? With her agreement, do it. Don’t hide the value your efforts bring to the team. It’ll be noticed by others as well but always, when you speak about a success, mention the opportunity that your manager gave you. Making your boss look good is simple commonsense.

Merge inputs to your manager

Think about what happens to your regular reports – and your colleagues’ regular reports – that go to your manager. What happens to all those reports? Chances are, they’re distilled by your manager, then passed up the communication chain to a more senior manager or director.

So why not speak with your colleagues about formatting all of your reports in the same way? This would add consistency and reduce work for your manager.

Avoid giving your manager surprises

Keep your manager informed of projects’ progress and issues. No one likes surprises. So, if there’s bad news or something goes wrong in your area, make sure you’re the one to bear the news – with suggestions on how to correct the situation. If you’re successful in managing this important dynamic, it’ll increase your job satisfaction and career prospects and maybe, one day, help you to guide one of your team members in the subtle art of “managing upwards.”

 This post was written with Roger Mayo, director at MT&D Learning Solutions.

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One comment on “More Tips and Tricks for Managing Upwards”:

  1. Vicky Keys wrote:

    Great insight! I am starting a new job next week, and these suggestions have increased my confidence level by providing me with ‘action stepsto take in my new role.
    Thanks!