“Managing up” is not a phrase you often hear. The idea that employees should also manage their bosses seems counter-intuitive — aren’t higher-ups supposed to be the ones in charge?

But when you think about it, the idea that only managers are responsible for the success of a task or a working relationship seems absurd. Your very human boss (the boss who also makes mistakes, can’t always read your mind, and is sometimes — or often! — beset with personality quirks) needs help so that you both arrive at the same place.

To get a better idea of what managing up entails, imagine your boss mouthing the famous line from the movie, Jerry McGuire: “Help me help you.” Managing up is basically helping your boss to manage you.

However you look at it, the skill of managing up will make you a more productive and a less stressed employee. So consider three common types of managers and how you can help them help you:

The firefighter

These bosses are always in emergency mode; there’s always a raging fire that needs to be put out, therefore every task they assign is urgent and important. But you can only attend to one thing at a time. Getting one pressing task after another, and receiving constant “where is the report I asked you to make ten minutes ago?” is the shortest path to an ulcer.

How to manage up?

First off, don’t catch their stress. Getting all tense and anxious yourself will keep you from the clear head you need to approach the “crisis” objectively. Instead, calmly explain how much time and resources you have, share what tasks you have, and ask which one is higher in priority.

Say: “I have two hours to work before the noon deadline. You assigned me to work on report A and B, both of which would take one-and-a-half hours to finish. Which would you like me to start working on first?”

Sometimes firefighter bosses simply need to be reminded that you are a person and not a machine, and that you function better without a ticking clock in your ear. If this approach doesn’t work, explain to your boss that to meet the deadline, you would have to make some shortcuts, so perhaps output standards can be lowered to meet the time frame.

The weather disturbance

These bosses sometimes want to talk to you, sometimes they don’t. One morning they’re all upbeat and cheery, the next they’re the bearer of doom. There are moments when proposals get approved without question, but catch him or her at a bad time, and similar proposals get thrown out of the window.

How to manage up?

Having a moody boss will require keen powers of observation, especially in the science of behaviour. As the chances of calling out your boss without getting burnt is nil, you need to make the adjustments yourself.

Figure out the times your boss is in a good mood. Is he a morning person who works best after three cups of coffee, or does his motor run better during mid-day?

Time your reports when he is less likely to be cranky. Watch out for other signs that he’s in a bad mood so that you can act accordingly. Don’t get mad or hold grudges.

Aim for empathy. Perhaps your boss suffers from intense pressure from his bosses, or maybe his health is not great. If his mood swings are all bluster anyway — meaning he still gets the job done — maybe you can afford to be a little more patient.

The minimalist

This kind of boss rarely interferes in the daily operations of his department. He gives few instructions and doesn’t bother about accountability. Now, while some degree of autonomy is great for empowering staff, this management style borders on neglect. What’s worse, when things go wrong, you take the blame.

How to manage up?

Before you get frustrated enough to type that resignation letter, perhaps you can start by increasing your boss’s awareness of that fact that you are flapping around like fish out of water.

It’s easy to make the assumption that your boss is lazy but perhaps he honestly believes you’re better off with less control. Maybe the hands-off approach is because he trusts you enough to get the job done.

If so, take the proactive route and just constantly ask for directions. Do your work to the best of your ability and take the opportunity to shine. Anticipate potential problems and solve them yourself. Get motivated by the fact that in doing so upper management is going to notice sooner or later who’s greasing the gears and offer you a more challenging role.


Article by Kay Vardeleon, an associate writer with Sandbox Advisors, a career, job search and human resource consulting firm. Website: www.sandboxadvisors.com