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"Managing Up" - What does it mean and why is everyone talking about it?

I've heard several government employees talking about managing up. From what I gather, it is basically the idea of stretching your boundaries at work to take on work that will help out your manager. It's a way to make yourself stand out in the workplace.

Any better definitions out there of "managing up?"

Anyone have any examples of managing up in your career? I'd love to hear your own stories about how you used managing up to further your career.

Tags: managing, up

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Great question, Hannah. My sense is that it is about not waiting for a manager to come to the employee. If an employee needs more work, they should ask. If they have a question about their performance, ask. If they have an issue with their boss, share it proactively (and constructively). If they see a flaw or shortcoming in the manager, try to adapt and fill that gap with their own skill set (which becomes invaluable to the manager and the team).

Earlier in my career, it meant that I would basically do one of two things:

(a) listen for my manager to say what made him/her frustrated, what they weren't getting done, and what kept them up at night, then I would ask if there was anything I could do to help; and

(b) look for ways to streamline processes, create templates and systems for routine tasks and just do anything that made the entire team / organization stronger or more productive. 

From WSJ: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122511931313072047.html

Good tips and I appreciate the article, Andy!

I agree with Andrew - especially on being proactive and improving systems.  When I think of managing up and the "taking on work that will help out your manager", I basically think "don't make your manager look bad".  I feel that it's more of a Soft Skill area.  If your manager needs something - help out, be proactive, don't wait, let him/her know right away.

Thanks for responding. I've mostly heard it in contexts of how to move upward in a career. The way you've described it definitely makes sense as a way for people to stand out to their managers and possibly position them for a promotion.

This sounds a lot like "leading up" through influence and other skills to lead your boss so that you both win.  Michael Useem wrote an excellent book on the topic, "Leading Up," which was mandatory reading in a leadership development program I took a few years ago.  It's a good read if you haven't read it yet.

"Managing Up" can also be understood by looking at the principals of effective management and using them with your boss. For example, one principal is to set clear expectations. Staff can reduce re-work and save time by ensuring they are clear on the expectations via summarizing their understanding of the task, deadline and what to do if there are problems. Its not uncommon for managers to not know they've been unclear, over-burdened a staff person or created other problems. Can you think of another management principal that can effectively be reverse engineered?

Hmm.  I agree that all the things everyone has said are good to do, but they don't fall into my definition. Ok, Andy's point about helping your manager know when you need more work does meet my definition.

I coach my team pretty frequently on managing up.  To me, it's a set of actions under the umbrella of getting your needs met by meeting your manager's needs.

For example, your manager says "we need to clearly communicate this standard to regulated companies."  You know that you've wanted to explore a new communications channel (e.g., social media), so you take this opportunity to suggest it to your manager as a way to achieve the broader goal.

Or you've noticed that how long it takes to file your time card, and come up with a way to make it more efficient.  You realize it'll also help your manager review things more quickly, so you focus on the benefit to the manager when you proactively raise your idea.  You don't start with "this'll make my life easier" (you do raise it, just not first) and you don't wait until you're asked.

Managing up also means some of the things people said earlier: don't surprise your boss with either good news or bad news. Help them deal with everything by keeping them informed and being up front when you make a mistake (everyone makes mistakes, even your manager!).

Finally, it means thinking of how best to help your manager, who is responsible for various things:

  • getting work done: not only do the work, but report back when it's done.  I don't mean every time you answer the phone, but if your manager specifically asks you to do something, send two short notes: 1) "I'm on it" and 2) "It's done."
  • reporting further up the chain: be clear about your accomplishments to help brag about your unit
  • helping you get your job done (believe it or not, that's one of a manager's top priorities): tell them when you run into an obstacle.  Don't expect your manager to know everything; it's impossible.
  • making decisions about your work: come in with proposed solutions instead of only identifying problems and relying solely on your manager to solve them
  • balancing attention among multiple obligations: when you set up time to talk, be clear about the purpose for talking and get to the point, being clear about what you need your manager to do (make a decision, allocate resources, give you feedback, etc.)
  • reducing budget: do your own thinking about what you would cut and why, and be ready for that request
  • allocating a windfall: have your "elevator pitch" ready, so if some additional resources come in (money, time, contractor support, etc.) you're ready to ask for what you need
  • being aware of what's going on: know your stuff and ready to talk about it on a moment's notice. But if you don't know, don't make it up.  Commit to following up and then do so. And when you hear something relevant to your manager's needs, share it!
  • trying to get it all done: when you can help, volunteer. In general, be a team player, even if that means sometimes doing things normally done by others (from solving problems to making copies).

I hope that's helpful!

Jeffrey, thank you for such a thorough response. This was very helpful!

+1000 to Jeffrey's list. Jeffrey's definition and mine mirror one another. "Getting your needs met by meeting your manager's needs" is pretty much how I've always defined it as well. It's not about just making your boss' job easier - that's just being a good employee. It's about accomplishing your goals by managing your boss. Jeffrey gives some fantastic examples of that. The people whom I would classify as "managing up" are the people who just know how to get things done. They're the ones who know how to get things approved quickly (because rather than sending it to their boss via email and waiting, they know they have to print it out and give it to her secretary who will then schedule 15 minutes on their calendar to review your doc); they're the ones who will get their programs approved because they know exactly how to structure their briefing so that their boss can take it without any changes to their next meeting with their boss and shake the funds loose; they're the people who get the coolest/most important assignments because the boss knows he/she will take care of it and pull them in where needed without feeling that they have to check in. 

Ever hear those people who always complain that they have great ideas, but they're too junior for anyone to care? It's not that they're too junior, it's that they haven't yet learned how to manage up well enough. 

Jeffrey I really like your practical advice and concrete actions. I've found that paying attention to helping your boss look good, keep them from getting surprised, and being willing to take on tough tasks when others are hiding out can help you be seen as a hero.

Oh, one more thing your manager is responsible for: helping you grow.

Any time you spot an opportunity to increase your skills, speak up: training, conferences, webinars, or even meetings that interest you.

On that last one, for example, I brought a junior staff member to a briefing for our deputy administrator. He learned more about how senior managers interact than "subject matter" stuff, but that was one of the reasons I brought him.


A good boss wants to help you expand your abilities, but can't be watching over you every second.  So help out!

One last thought: here's an OUTSTANDING GovLoop post that relates directly to your question:

Ten Things You Should Be Saying to Your Boss

And on the flip side, another post by the same person covers Ten Things Your Boss Should Be Saying to You.  If your boss isn't saying them, bring them up yourself.

And keep in mind: all of this (everything everyone has said, not just those blog posts) applies all the way up and down the chain:  Department Secretaries to branch secretaries. :)

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