How to Manage Your Boss

If you want to succeed in business, don't just manage down. Manage up, left, and right, while you're at it.

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #22

Angie from New York City writes in:

I've heard lots of people talking about 'managing up' and how that reduces stress and/or work at work. What the heck is this 'managing up'? Does it really work and how are some examples of this practice?

When I started work, people talked about managing up. I also never found anyone who could tell me what that meant. Then I became a manager. And one day, shortly after I'd finished flogging one of my employees and was cleaning the metal tips of the lash while waiting for the next victim, I realized that if they were doing a better job of managing me, perhaps our relationship would get on a bit better.

In a perfect world, bosses would know exactly how to manage you.

They'd ask you to do things you're capable of doing, that challenge and interest you. They would check in just often enough, give support when you need it, and help you succeed. In a perfect world, pigs also fly. In this world, you need to make sure all that happens by doing it for your boss. And to add insult to injury, you need to make sure your boss knows, so you don't get blindsided at review time.

Manage Goals

Angie, you have two jobs. One is making your company more successful and bringing in barrels of money. The other is making your boss successful. And if you have to choose, think carefully. In some businesses, you support your boss, since it's their sole decision if you stay, go, or get promoted. In other businesses, your best career move is to support the company, and hope your boss gets, er, adjusted. Preferably adjusted out of the organization. Making that choice is an entire episode in and of itself.

If you're making your boss successful, you need to know what success means to them. Talk with your Big Kahuna to find out their outcomes and how they are measured. Maybe their goal is to have a successful product launch. When setting your outcomes and measures, explicitly relate them to those goals. If you're designing the package, say, "Boss, my goal is to finish the package design. Is there anything I should consider to ensure the overall product launch succeeds?" You can do this with every job. Even if all you do is empty the wastebaskets, you're helping your boss's goal of creating an environment that helps the salespeople to meet their quotas.

Make it clear you're taking care of your boss and your company, not just yourself. Yes, you're the nanny, but only you know that. Oh, and if your boss never sets good goals for you? Well, then, get on it. Manage up; make it your job to have the conversation. Nothing produces stress like unclear goals. And nothing relieves stress like a good flog . . . excuse me, like clear, meaningful goal-setting with your manager.

Clarify Perceptions

It's great for the company, but it sucks for you, if you do a good job and no one notices. Don't wait for them to notice how great you are. Make it clear when you've met your deadlines. Find ways to call achievements to your boss's attention. But please don't do it like a smug, self-serving toady who deserves to be flogged, er, gently reminded that humility is a virtue. It's tricky. If you want some hints on how to self-promote with tact, check out this episode.

Sync up on Delegation

Some bosses micromanage. They like to say they're "hands-on." Your new boss says, "Handle the incoming mail."  You start to pick up the pile of mail and the boss says, "No, pick them up by the corner. That way you won't get peanut butter on them." Oddly, there's no peanut butter on your hands. But it's clear this boss will micromanage.

Other bosses do the opposite. They're "hands-off." They'll say, "I don't like to give specific objectives. Just do what's right. I trust you." Uh, oh. This is a train wreck waiting to happen. You'll spend all year doing what you think is right, and at review time, you'll get a nasty surprise when your boss says, "You were supposed to handle the incoming mail. What happened?" Saying, "The dog ate it because I got peanut butter on it,"  won't fly.

It's up to you to make sure you both agree on how "hands-on" or "hands-off" you like to be managed. My rule of thumb is that you and your boss should agree on the outcomes you'll meet, and you should be fully responsible for deciding how to reach those outcomes. If you have a boss that dictates your outcomes and how you get there, it's a no-win for you unless the boss is smart enough to tell you to do the right things, and you're happy working for a dominating boss.

So manage up! Link your goals to your boss's so they succeed when you succeed. Clarify perceptions of how you're doing, and make sure they're hands-on or hands-off in a way that works for you.

[Editor's note: the terms "hands-on" and "hands-off" are descriptive of management style only. They aren't intended in any way to endorse workplace massage, friendly arm punches, or  spiritual laying-on of hands.]

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


Image Courtsey of Shuttershock.

About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.