Masterclass: How to manage upwards

Employees should assess their manager's interactions with other team members to build a strong relationship

Sometimes we might be led by people who aren’t actually very good at management – but even if you end up with a difficult boss, there are ways to steer that relationship to produce positive career outcomes.

Managing up is about influencing your relationships with people above you in the work food chain, and knowing how to positively interact with anyone who has influence over your career trajectory. 

You need to be able to look at your boss without judgement, and educate yourself on their processes. Are they fast-paced or moderate, impatient, detail or big-picture focused? Understanding how they operate is key, and you should also take time to honestly assess them. 

Managing upwards is then about looking at what you can do more of, or differently, to build a strong relationship with your boss. This means being strategic, empathetic and responsive to their needs, and potentially having a conversation with them to explore what you can do more or less of to benefit the team. 

Look at colleagues who work well with your boss, and those who don’t. Establish what they are doing to get those reactions and alter your behaviour accordingly. Importantly, this is not about completely changing who you are as a person – you still need to be authentic. 

A robust relationship with a boss who sees you as an ally and a great team member will not only help your career development, but will in turn make you a great boss. The best managers are able to adapt to the personalities of the people they are leading, so relational and emotional intelligence is key. The more you can get along with people who are different from you, the better off you will be. 

It doesn’t mean you have to like your boss – though it helps – but if you work for a manager you genuinely don’t get along with, the best move is to de-escalate your emotional style and make your interactions as transactional as possible. Don’t let negative emotions hijack your behaviours if you hope to benefit from the relationship. 

However, if you do have a really bad relationship that’s not going to improve, the best thing you can do is protect yourself until you’re able to leave the organisation. Life is too short to stay in a negative situation. 

The last (and most important) point is to make sure you don’t forget to do the job you were hired to do. If you spend more time worrying about your boss than your job, then you’ve gone too far. 

Mary Abbajay is president and co-founder of Careerstone Group LLC, and author of Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss