You’ve probably heard about the need to “manage up”- but what does that really mean?
To me, it means interacting with your supervisor and other managers up the chain in a way that increases your impact and makes it more likely that things you want to see done in your organization actually get done.
There is nothing nefarious about managing up, at least not when it is done responsibly. Managers are human, and they have a finite amount of time and attention. They cannot be expected to know the detailed impacts of all of their requests and decisions. The best techniques for managing up simply provide the manager with the detailed information they may not have, and in this way these techniques actually help your manager make better decisions that are more aligned with the organization’s overall goals.
I do not advocate for techniques that manipulate managers, but I have both used and been the target of the techniques I describe below, and in neither role do I consider them manipulative.
Here are my top techniques for managing up:
Always tell your bad news yourself
If something goes wrong on a project for which you are responsible, don’t let your manager hear about it from anyone but you (or, in some cases, your delegate). The absolute worse thing that you can allow to happen is for your manager to hear about it from a peer or more senior manager. This puts your manager in the awkward position of having to answer for a problem without the background information, and makes your manager and the rest of your team look bad.
It is far better to bring the bad news to your manager yourself. This gives you a chance to explain the reasons for the problem and the mitigating actions you are planning to take or have already taken. Then your manager will be ready with the details if a peer or higher level manager asks about the problem.
Propose one or two potential solutions when you present a new problem
Sometimes a problem is not something you have the authority to act upon, but you still want to bring it to your manager. Common examples of this sort of situation are workplace disagreements or a company practice that is having a negative impact on you or others.
When you come to your manager to discuss this problem, don’t just dump the mess and step back and wait for a solution. It may be your manager’s job to clean up the mess, but no one likes a surprise problem to deal with along with all of their other usual work.
You can minimize the negative impact on your manager’s workload by presenting a couple of potential solutions along with the problem. This also allows you to present the solutions you think are best.
For example, let’s say you and a colleague are unable to decide on how to complete a project you’re both working on. You have differing opinions, you’ve tried discussing your differences, but no consensus is in sight. This is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to help resolve as a manager- I’d much rather that someone bring the issue to me than let the conflict fester. Festering conflict leads to team members who hate each other, and that is an even bigger management headache.
But you don’t want to just march into your manager’s office and say “Bob is an idiot! He wants to do X, when clearly Y is the better approach!” You may or may not be right, but since your manager may well have hired Bob, calling him an idiot isn’t a great approach.
It is better to say “Bob and I can’t agree on how to complete this project. Can you help?” But you’ve still left your manager with a problem to sort out.
Better still would be to say “Bob and I can’t agree on how to complete this project. Could we schedule a time to present our ideas to you so that you can decide which way we should proceed?”
Even better would be to approach your manager with Bob and make the request together.
When new work is assigned, accept it but provide the trade offs
Your time is finite, too, and you do no one any favors by accepting more work than you can accomplish on time. That doesn’t mean that you should say “no” to all new assignments, though. Instead, say “yes, and here are the options for projects I could delay to get this new work done.”
Of course, you can only provide these options if you are really on top of your projects. To use this technique well, you need to know which projects have some slack in their schedules and which will necessarily be delayed if you delay working on your assigned task. You should also know the likely impact of delaying any of the projects you present as potential trade offs, because that will probably be the next question your manager asks.
This is one of the many reasons I like to always know the dependencies in my projects well. If I delay A, what will happen to B? And what will that do to C? As a project manager, it is my job to know these things, so I can usually answer those questions on the spur of the moment- at least for the first wave of effects. However, you can use this technique even if you don’t know all of the potential impacts off the top of your head. You can say something like this:
“Sure, I’d be happy to take on this work from the Omega project. Right now, I’m working on the report for the Alpha project and the data analysis for the Beta project. Let me take a quick look at my schedule and let you know if I can delay one of those without causing any problems.”
Then follow through: check your schedule (or talk to the relevant team members, if needed) and get back to your manager with the results:
“You asked me to take on some work for the Omega project. I can do that, but it would mean delaying the analysis I was doing for the Beta project by about a week. Jim says that this will delay the overall project, too, but he’s OK with that if you are.”
If your boss answers that you’re supposed to somehow get the new project and the original projects done on time… that might be a sign that it is a time to look for a new boss, particularly if this is a common expectation in your organization. However, also look for cases where the best option for handling a new project is to do a less thorough job on one of the existing ones. Then you could say something like this:
“Sure, I’d be happy to take on this work from the Omega project. Right now, I’m working on the report for the Alpha project and the data analysis for the Beta project. I think I can squeeze this new project in if I don’t run the Super-Duper analysis on the Beta project. Alternatively, I could delay the delivery of the analysis by a week. Which would you prefer?”
One of the hardest things for some of us to get used to in the work world is that sometimes the “just barely good enough” approach is the best option overall for the organization. It is your manager’s job to know when that is the case, and when it would be a better option to delay the project- or at least to know when to dig in and figure that out.
These are just a few possible “managing up” techniques. The common thread in all of these is that you’re providing your manager with more information, and this information then helps you get the sort of outcome you want: whether that is a decision made in the way you want or just to be able to do your work without drowning under an unreasonable work load.
Do you have other managing up tips you like? If so, share them in the comments!
Thanks for this Melanie.
It’s very different to all the “manage your PhD” supervisor “advice” that entailed making up for your supervisor’s failings as a manager, that I heard as a grad student.
I’ve moved into Medical Communications where good project management skills are essential so it’s all useful stuff to add to my toolbox.
I really like your description of the “just barely good enough” option (and how hard it is to adjust to seeing that as an option).
I could have used that last tip a few years ago in dealing with my boss who would constantly try to assign me tasks that I thought were a waste of time. I’d just say, “Nope, sorry, my plate is full.” This came after repeated requests by me that he hire someone to help me in my job because I was often overwhelmed by my workload, all of which went ignored. He’d get so mad about my “no” responses, but he was someone who was like the boss you describe who expects you to get the new project done as well as the ones you’re already working on and in a shorter timeframe. I had several conversations with him where I’d ask for help with prioritization of my workload, and he’d just say, “They’re all important.” Ok, that really doesn’t help.
Anyway, it finally reached a point where he was so mad about me saying no that I thought he was going to fire me. He made a valid point that my dismissiveness was a morale-killer and he needed a positive attitude from me. I could understand that. He’d get excited about new projects, and I didn’t want to dampen that spirit, I just wanted him to find more resources to help. Since we’ve already established that he was no help at prioritization, the tack I took after this conversation was that I said yes to everything, put it all on my To Do list, but continued to prioritize according to my discretion. When he’d follow up on things that weren’t getting done, I’d move up the prioritization of that task, and I’d point out everything else that was getting done. I was still sending the same message, which is that my plate was full, and if he wanted things done faster, he’d have to hire someone else, but it was a more palatable way to send the message.