Managing Upwards

by Ian Saunders

Why bother?

In an organised world, there are always people with authority over us. Without their consent and support, how can we follow conviction, exercise judgment, use creative ability, achieve constructive results, or create conditions by which others can do the same?

Managing superiors is essential. Devoting a quarter of our time and ability to that effort is not too much.

From Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock

Leading and managing is very much easier when those we manage help us to manage them effectively. So, if you make a good job of managing upwards, your boss will appreciate your efforts and you will give yourself a chance to get the following benefits:

  • Enjoy the amount of freedom that you want
  • See your boss when you want to
  • Be able to access their knowledge, experience and wisdom
  • Have feedback about performance regularly rather than once a year
  • Be really clear about their expectations – the things that matter in terms of your performance
  • Know what you need to do to be ready for promotion
  • Get advice – when you want it – about dealing with difficult people and situations.

What’s in it for you will be related to the amount of effort you are willing to make on skills such as...

  • Considering their style, so you have a better chance of getting what you want
  • Putting meetings into their diary, if you want to see them more often, so you get the contact you want
  • Sending information without being asked, so you can keep them at arms length if you want!

So, do you want these benefits? If you do, it’s time to examine the effort you need to put into managing upwards.

Where do you stand?

Do you spend enough time, thought and energy managing upwards? Many don’t, for a variety of reasons.

  • They fail to appreciate how important it is.
  • They have other things on which to concentrate.
  • They don’t like their boss (though frankly this gives a person even more reason to manage upwards effectively).

The respected business leader Dee Hock (creator and founder of VISA) suggests we should spend 25 per cent of our time managing upwards...

Your boss may or may not be more experienced and wiser, and may or may not be more in tune with the organisation in which you work. One thing is certain, however: they almost always have more power and influence.

You can succeed in spite of or to spite your boss, but neither of these is really the best approach. You do not have to be sycophantic. However, it is always worth the effort to invest time in managing your boss appropriately.

Some examples

Have you accessed this section because you are experiencing problems with your boss?

Below are some positive stories that should encourage you.

  • A senior manager in a major bank had a different personal style from his boss. By getting clarity about what he wanted to achieve and what he believed his boss sought to achieve (alignment), together with a similar set of actions for a member of his team, he became more able to cope with and accept these differences.
  • A manager had a very similar personal style to his boss and yet had a different perspective on organisational goals. And having similar personal styles can often cause as many problems as very different styles. By getting agreement as to exactly what issues concerned his boss, he was able to create enough space to allow their differences in organisational perspectives to be managed successfully.
  • A manager had a very supportive boss. He maintained this support by ensuring that he kept him adequately informed about what he was doing and any likely problems that might arise. This enabled the high levels of trust between them to be maintained.
  • A manager (actually there are many similar examples) found it difficult to ‘do a good job’ within the organisation. He left and found a new job in an organisation with a very different culture. Here, he flourished.
  • A group of managers said they never saw their boss. They all began to make the effort to visit his office on the off-chance of seeing him. They found they were feeling more connected and he thought they were doing a better job!!

Investing time in managing upwards is almost always rewarded.