How to manage upwards

The ability to manage your manager has become something of a lost art. Helen Floor offers seven tips on how to do it better

It’s easy to assume your manager is the finished article. It’s also wrong. Like you, they are a work in progress. They’re on a learning curve, and have a lot of demands on their time and attention.

I say this not to plead for clemency on behalf of all managers; after all, they earn more and, presumably, wanted their job. Instead, I want you to recognise that your manager can be one of your greatest resources, and that you can help them with this. Your manager can facilitate your progress and almost certainly has your best interests at heart. You can help your manager to get the best out of you if you recognise that management is a two-way street. Master the skills of managing upwards and your work life can be a lot more rewarding, and your career prospects will improve. Here are my seven tips for improving your ability to manage your manager: 

1. Don’t sit on bad news

A minor issue can develop into a major one if it’s ignored. It’s better to share problems or issues with your manager straightaway before they escalate.

2. Tell them how to get the best out of you

It’s a good sign when managers ask their subordinates how they like to be managed. Whether at the interview stage or, for managers new to an organisation, as part of a conversation with the individuals who comprise their new team, it’s a healthy conversation to have and a valuable piece of knowledge to hold. But there’s nothing to stop you from initiating this conversation with your manager, provided you do it in the right way and respect that they may have their own methods.

3. Demonstrate your expertise

Your manager is your senior, not your superior. If they’re at all sensible, they hired you because you’re better than they are at something, so don’t be shy about sharing your skills or knowledge.

4. Display the qualities all managers love

It takes no talent or special skill to be on time, bring a good attitude to work, put energy and enthusiasm into what you do, support your team mates, ask questions when you don’t know the answers and be willing to work hard. Many organisations hire on the strength of these qualities, knowing that specialist skills can be learned along the way. 

5. Learn from them

Don’t take it personally when your manager discusses your areas for improvement with you. Their manager or peers are having the same conversation with them, and we all have areas for improvement. The key is whether you treat these as opportunities to improve or as a problem to avoid. If you’re lucky, you can learn a lot from your manager – so grab those opportunities to learn.

6. Suggest solutions to problems

Everyone loves a problem-solver. One sure-fire way to win your manager’s good favour is to suggest solutions to problems rather than simply draw attention to them. If you repeatedly do this, you could well find yourself being asked to take on more, leading a taskforce or heading for a promotion. 

7. Understand their motivation

Take the time to understand your manager’s vision for their team, function or organisation. Watch how they behave in meetings and how they react to pressure, and try to understand what their stresses are. This will allow you to support them in a professional way (as they should you).

It’s your manager’s job to manage you and none of the above is a way of letting them off the hook. But as you progress in your career there’s a real skill to helping your manager get the best out of you. If you can learn this skill, the rewards are worth it. And I’d expect your manager to be doing all of the above – and more – for you.

Helen Floor is managing director of 1-1 Recruitment Group