How to step up when managing up

by Feb 18, 2016

Why managing up is a stand alone skill

It is widely agreed that having a good boss can be of greater benefit to a career than the job itself. Sadly, many bosses are not of the right calibre, or have skill set deficits. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are a bad boss all round.  A high number of reports find themselves having to create workarounds to make the most of a bad situation. At one time it wasn’t expected for anyone to step up when managing up. Perhaps it was even frowned upon. But those days are gone. Now managing up is a skill in its own right.



It’s not your job to manage your boss. At one time managing up was associated with brown-nosing for self-advancement. Or making sure that everything ran smoothly from behind the scenes away from the spot light without getting any credit. This was a very typical female situation and role which happily is changing. You’ve heard the adage, “Behind every great man there’s a greater woman”

The corporate world has known scores of Executive Assistants who were the unsung heroines, behind a bumbling, or overworked boss, who basked in the reflected glory of making her boss look good. Or a key manager who never made it to the C-Suite because she was too valuable taking care of things for other people to be promoted and became indispensable where she was in her managing up role. I even know some Exec P.A.s with MBAs.

Managing up, rather than your boss managing you, requires special strategies to make a sensitive and challenging dynamic work. Manage up by all means, but get credit for it.

This can happen when your boss is:

  • insecure
  • a poor communicator
  • indecisive
  • a bully
  • absent for whatever reason
  • not as good as you
  • overworked or overloaded
  • a poor time manager
  • new in the job
  • underqualified


Today managing up is still needed, but it has taken on a different and more independent meaning.

 Here are some top practices for managing up:

1. Don’t cover for your boss

At one time managing up might have involved covering for your boss, so that any areas of weaknesses were never openly identified. For you to be effective and add value, it’s important that you visibly own those responsibilities, so that you get credit for them.  As the saying goes

“If you don’t step forwards, you will always be in the same place”.

Many bosses are willing to let things tick over, and allow others to believe it’s their doing. They might even think that’s the reality. It’s obviously OK to do the occasional public rescue. But any pattern needs a discussion and re-designation of ownership of responsibilities. The days of long-term cover without full recognition are over. It does not have to be about confrontation.

2. Don’t suck up

Managing up doesn’t involve sucking up. It is about identifying the problems and communicating that knowledge effectively and assertively. Propose solutions using assertive and constructive communication. A good boss will recognise that this is vital for the department to meet its and her goals. Read: How to disagree with your boss and not get fired.

3. Establish communication channels

Bosses who require managing up frequently struggle with communication. This might be about lack of competence or time. Either way it’s important to establish:

  • The preferred platform of communication – email, meeting, phone call, other?
  • Agree the regularity of communication: daily, weekly?
  • Set guidelines around issues requiring intervention and limits of authority. This is vital when dealing with an indecisive boss or a micro-manger. I have known even minor decisions held up, pending the input of a senior micro-manager.
  • Set your own overall KPIs or objectives. Send them to your boss.
  • Set your own weekly priorities
  • Ask her to prioritise your list if she adds to it. Be clear that something will be dropped.

Good bosses are aware of their own limitations and are open to solutions that make achievement of company goals easier. They will acknowledge that you are responsible for that element which allows their departments to run smoothly. They will happily give you recognition, authority, thanks, status and the reward for doing what they cannot do well. If their management style is “everything is a priority”  then confirm your own assigned priorities in writing and escalate if necessary or seek support elsewhere.

If it continues this means that your boss is not a good boss. It’s perhaps it’s time to look for another job.

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Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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