Three Simple Tips to Manage Up Without Kissing Up
Updated: May 13
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Your manager plays a crucial role in your success – or failure – at your organization. From determining your current work assignments and compensation to opening doors and influencing your future opportunities, the relationship you have with your boss is a critical one to manage well.
Unfortunately, I often hear from the leaders whom I coach that the relationship they have with their manager is somehow strained, distant or otherwise lacking. Often in the same conversation, I also hear them squirm at the very idea of managing up – that it’s somehow sucking up or manipulative.
I see it differently. I view managing up as doing your part to create a productive and effective partnership with the person above you. It’s about helping the people above you succeed, which in turn will help you succeed, creating a win-win. Neglecting this relationship, on the other hand, may cost you promotions and the chance to create the impact and difference you want to make.
If you truly have a bad boss, such as a bully, narcissist, or the no-boss boss, you will need additional specific techniques to address or get out of those situations. But assuming your relationship with your boss is just suboptimal and you’re willing to do your part to improve the situation, it boils down to some basics.
Long lists with tips for how to strengthen your relationship with your boss exist, but I think you only need to remember three commonsensical yet profoundly important things.
Focus on the positive.
It goes without saying that your manager – as a fellow member of the human race — is flawed. Focusing on all the ways your manager disappoints, however, won’t help your mental state or your relationship with them. Instead, see what you might learn from them and this situation. Just like you, your manager will have strengths and weaknesses, and your relationship will be best served if you acknowledge and leverage the strengths they do bring. Where you can provide a genuine compliment or express appreciation, do. Everyone appreciates a kind word or pat on the back, and your manager is no different.
Make life easy for your boss.
Making life easy for your boss starts by getting to know them better. Do they prefer to start conversations with some personal chit-chat, or do they prefer to get straight down to business? Do they light up when you talk about vision or facts? What kinds of information do they require when making decisions? How do they receive updates? What qualities do they appreciate in people and what irritates them? Observe your manager carefully or talk to a trusted colleague to answer those questions.
Armed with an understanding of your boss’s preferences and style, you can intelligently flex your own style so that interactions with your boss are more successful and satisfying for you both. For example, Mike, a senior leader I coached, was naturally slower-paced and more amiable than his boss who had an extremely fast-paced driving style of leadership. Mike made some small, smart adaptations to work more successfully with his boss, including being highly efficient with his time, being direct and to-the-point, and providing solid facts and data to support his decision making. By strategically adapting his communication style, Mike made it easier for him and his boss to work together. Importantly, this strategic flexibility enabled Mike’s boss to more easily see and appreciate his work and contributions, which helped Mike achieve the best outcomes for the organization and his career.
The second aspect of making things easy for your boss is looking for opportunities where you can “go the extra mile.” Like you, your boss is strapped for time and wants to be successful. Look for ways you might be able to save them time, eliminate a hassle, take on responsibility or solve a problem. And while you may need to highlight issues to keep your manager informed, don’t shift problems onto their plate. Your boss will appreciate your thoughtfulness and initiative, and it will serve your own development and career too. The more responsibilities you take on and the more problems you solve, the more you will enhance your own capabilities, personal brand and resume.
Help your boss succeed.
This involves aligning your efforts with their highest priorities and representing your boss well.
First, align your efforts and work with your boss’s overarching agenda and goals. This seems so obvious it pains me to mention it, but I have seen individuals neglect this essential step with nearly disastrous results. Ensure you understand how your boss will measure your success, what they see as the highest priority initiatives for you to achieve, and the values they most want to see in your work. As these can shift over time, be sure to explicitly align with your manager on a regular and ongoing basis.
Last but not least, do what you can to be a positive reflection of your boss’s leadership. Their reputation depends in part on your work and how you show up – and doing something that reflects poorly on your manager is guaranteed to damage your relationship. So regardless of your feelings, take the high road. In Harvard Business Review, MIT Sloan School of Management's Michael Schrage suggests thinking of your boss as a brand and making them look good as a marketing challenge. What are two things you could do in the next week that would make your boss look better to his boss or peers? If you do what you can to highlight and reflect your manager’s strengths and minimize their personal liabilities, they will often reciprocate in other ways.
While each specific relationship and situation has its nuance to navigate, keeping these three commonsense ideas in mind will help you strengthen nearly every boss relationship. Managing up well is not about kissing up; it is simply doing your part to strengthen this critical relationship and enable your mutual success.