Have you heard the saying: people don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses? It can be truly miserable when you work for a leader who isn’t good at leading. Over time, it flattens motivation, kills ambition, productivity and generally becomes toxic to your career.
When we feel that helpless at work, we tend to solve the problem by leaving the job. Then desperately hope for a better boss. Without having collected the skills or confidence to ensure we are any better set up for success. It’s one of the most common ways to get stuck in a cycle of trying to solve the same career problem.
So what stops us from managing up? Lack of skill and confidence are the two big inner barriers in the way of courageous conversations that I see.
And lack of time explains the biggest managing-up mis-step.
It’s why I advise clients to instigate a discovery discussion with their boss-to-be before the conversation is loaded with things that haven’t worked.
Too often, people feel this should wait until they’re ‘in’ and there’s some logic there, but putting off a discovery discussion raises an early alarm for me. Because when you understand time as the big practical barrier to managing up, it’s short-termist to have this discussion after you’ve already started the new job. And gives away your tendency to hide from having courageous conversations.
Please be more afraid of the conversations you aren’t having with your boss, than those you move into with a little fear!
When you clearly frame the purpose for an early conversation as supporting your boss so you succeed together from the start, it makes sense this happens early.
Put simply, you demonstrate inner leadership by asking for time to explore their leadership approach and operational priorities so you can collaboratively shape the ideal working partnership (and avoid problems you don’t know about yet).
What happens next if the pace of work is 100mph and this critical step is skipped?
You start a pattern of retrospective discovery – where you only know after your approach was different to theirs, and that difference has become a ‘problem’.
Here are 6 ways to manage up for a successful start :
Rewind the stories holding you back
If you feel blocked by lack of confidence and fear is taking over, it sometimes helps to ask yourself what you don’t want from this career move. Then consider how you will behave to avoid that. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen if you don’t have a discovery discussion with your boss? What are those fears based on? And what do you stand to gain if you do – then get everything you need…your new narrative.
How will you work better together than apart?
Is your boss-to-be introverted or extraverted? A good place to start is observing someone’s communication style and energy levels. If your boss tends to be very reflective and only offers you an opinion when asked, typically they are an introvert. On the other hand, if your boss shares information with you willingly and has a friendly demeanor, they are more than likely an extrovert. Use this information.
Depending on your boss’s personality, you’ve learned you may need to be more proactive in setting up meetings or listen and show interest in what they are saying. Either way, your best approach to managing up is finding the right communication style to fit your boss.
Flag how to get the best out of you and ask how that lands for them
Take the time to understand your manager’s vision for their team and your function within it. Ask for what you need to perform at your best. Then check how that lands for them – shift your stance to learning so you have clarity about what they are actually comfortable with and can problem-solve areas of difference.
Keep digging for ‘why’ so you can apply the learning more widely than each individual point discussed. Watch how they behave in meetings and try to understand what their stresses are and how they respond to pressure points.
Does being presented with a problem seem exasperating? That tells you to propose solutions at the same time – even if the final way forwards is created in partnership. Advance insights like these help you to support your boss in a professional way (and set expectations for how they should support you too).
Set solid two-way intentions for your working partnership
For example, if they are expressing an expectation for a tight degree of control (micromanager is the most common bad boss typology) and you will find that stifling, discuss a temporary compromise. Remember to also explore your preferred way of learning from them. Most of managing up is about you accepting your bosses’ perspective, having empathy, then navigating that collaboratively.
Micromanagers typically feel highly pressured to deliver to a high standard – their standard – not just trust stuff is getting done. And being honest, you don’t know each other well…yet, so managing up here is about developing trust, knowing that leads to confidence (for them) and more autonomy (for you).
Speed up trust
Look for ways to evidence your competence that makes your boss feel safe by going in stages. The easiest way to do this is to consistently perform at or above expected levels. Show sensitivity to their needs by communicating more than agreed initially. All the time knowing that resisting their needs can become a power tussle that starts the cycle of learning how things are done only after doing them ‘wrong’. You might offer a status update with questions every other day for the first 2 weeks, then bring it gradually down to once weekly – by agreement.
Managing up isn’t over when this conversation ends
Follow up with a note of decisions taken together. It demonstrates your leadership, gives you both an actionable framework to take forward in your work together – and something to circle back to if you need to course correct in the future.
Managing up takes inner leadership, clarity and confidence. You’re never too young to start and it is never finished either. Even start-up CEO’s have investors after all!
Remember, before your new career chapter begins is the very best time to focus on what you really want from this career move. Then all that’s left is to act like you want what you really want at work and keep looking for those times when managing up will help you achieve it (which is likely all the time).