Work

Managing Up Is an Art

And if you learn it, you can work harmoniously with almost any boss.

An employee trying to get the attention of her boss, who is on her phone.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by rawpixel on Unsplash.

Executive Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.

If you have frustrations about your boss, you’re far from alone. Most people do, even when that boss is a good manager. Maybe your manager isn’t responsive enough to email, or she cancels meetings at the last minute, or she changes her mind after you thought a decision had been made—or you might be dealing with another grade of problems altogether, such as a boss who is a bona fide wimp or tyrant.

Whatever your frustrations, one key to working harmoniously with any boss—and to keeping your own sanity—is to get clear in your own mind about what you can and can’t control, and to focus on making the pieces you can control go as smoothly as possible. Rather than stewing over an aspect of your boss, it’s a lot more productive to understand that her working style may not change dramatically, and to find ways to work effectively within that context. In other words, you’ve got to learn how to manage up.

To be clear, managing up isn’t about manipulating your boss or managing her perceptions. It’s about working with your boss in a way that will produce the best possible results for the organization, while at the same time decreasing your own stress level—which is to say, making you happier at work. For instance, if you have a busy manager who frequently cancels your weekly meeting, you could say, “I know you’re really busy—but can I talk to your assistant and get 10 minutes on your calendar?” You also might anticipate that she’s likely to cancel your meeting tomorrow and, as a safety measure, grab her for two minutes after today’s staff meeting to ask your most pressing question. Or send her an email telling her how you plan to move forward if you don’t hear from her by the end of the week. The point here is to not get so focused on your boss’s less-than-ideal behaviors that you miss the things that are in your control. For instance, you can try to:

Talk regularly about priorities: As much as possible, find opportunities to communicate throughout the year about your goals and priorities. Start by getting clear on the front end about what success would look like for you this year, as well as what you should not spend energy on at all. Then, at least every few months, talk explicitly about what you’ll be focused on in the short term. These periodic alignment checks can be very simple, for example: “For the next two months, I’ll be spending a lot of energy getting the membership department straightened out, and I’m not going to worry about filling the gaps on the communications team until after that.” Managers and employees are often clear in their own minds on these questions but haven’t connected with each other on them, and an explicit discussion can bring conflicting assumptions to the surface and solve them. (Though, to be clear, it should be on your manager, too, to keep this particular line of communication open—not just on you!)

Establish communication systems—and take responsibility for making them work: Make sure to establish a system for checking in and getting questions answered. For instance, you might have a regular weekly meeting, plus ad hoc conversations throughout the rest of the week as the need arises. Whatever system you decide on, err on the side of investing a good amount of time talking in the beginning of your relationship (or when rebooting it!); you can reduce it over time.

Once your system is established, put yourself in charge of making it work—meaning that if your boss cancels a meeting, you should take the lead on rescheduling it. Often when I hear people complain about how often their managers cancel meetings with them, when I dig further, it turns out that the employees themselves aren’t following up to reschedule. They’re leaving the ball in the boss’s already very busy court, and then getting frustrated that the meeting never happens. It’s true that this might be reasonable in a social situation where someone cancels plans, but it’s not the way to handle your boss or you might never get to meet with her. In fact, with one particularly busy boss who was notorious for canceling meetings, I told him that I’d happily tag along with him whenever he’d let me and that I didn’t care where we had our meetings. Twice I left the office to meet him in a hair salon while he had his hair cut, but I got what I needed.

Make it easy for your boss to give input: At one past job, I was the only person who could reliably get my boss to answer emails. My trick, such as it was, is that I kept my emails short and to-the-point and ensured he could answer me in a single sentence. The way to do that is to ask yes or no questions, keep emails concise, and give a quick proposal so your boss can respond quickly with a yes or no. And whenever possible, suggest solutions. Saying “What should I do about X?” puts the problem back on your boss. You make it easier for both of you if you say, “Here’s the deal with X. I’ve thought about A, B, and C, and I think we should do C because … Does that sound OK to you?”

Ask for feedback after a project is over: I regularly hear from people who are frustrated about not getting enough feedback on their work or hearing about things much too late (like first hearing criticism in a performance review rather than closer to the time you made the mistake in question). While ideally your boss would be offering feedback on her own, in reality she may be pulled in numerous other directions. Make it easy on her—and get yourself what you need—by raising it yourself. Simply saying “Can we debrief about how this went?” and then offering your own view and asking for hers can elicit feedback you might not otherwise hear.

Don’t take things personally: There will be times when you have a different point of view than your manager on something where she is the ultimate decision-maker. When this happens, you should advocate for what you believe, and if you think your boss is making a mistake, part of your job is to explain why. But if your boss ultimately picks a different route, it’s helpful to have reasonably thick skin: Don’t take it personally, and keep your ego out of it.

Don’t forget your boss is human: There may be times when she is grouchy, frustrated, or frazzled, or times when she would appreciate hearing that she handled something well. Additionally, realize that in the same way you might have sensitivities about the relationship, she may too. For instance, if you’re taking on responsibilities that used to be hers, she likely won’t appreciate hearing that they used to be a disaster until you came along. All of which is to say, be thoughtful.

Keep your own house in order: Stay on top of things, do what you say you’re going to do, take good notes on the subtleties of what your boss asks you to do so that you do it right, ensure that your boss only has to tell you something once, don’t let things fall through the cracks, and generally be someone she can rely on. You might be surprised how much easier your boss becomes to work with when you make yourself easy to work with, too.

This essay is adapted from the book Managing to Change the World by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser.

Read more from Executive Time, Slate’s pop-up blog about bosses.