Boss Lady

How to manage up: fact vs fiction


A common agenda when coaching aspiring leads is “how do I manage my manager?”One middle manager commented recently on the inadequacies or their boss.  Painfully aware of this person’s lacking communication skills and apparent inability to think strategically, the perennial question arose as to how to manage upwards.

Before launching into a plan of attack to manage or change anybody else, the fundamental question to address is am I standing firmly in my own role to support them to stand firmly in theirs?  If you are rolling your eyes right now and deciding that no-one understands precisely how misplaced your manager is in their own role, then you have surfaced the very thought that may misplace you as well.

Triangulation refers to the career limiting scenario of being the 2IC or confidante to your manager at the expense of your important peer connections.  This manoeuvre has been shown to create a false glass ceiling due to a person being out of place at work and disconnected from those around them, and thereby less likely to be considered for promotion.  If we can avoid any such entanglement, then here are some suggestions to safely manage upwards.

A misguided promotion, a mistaken hiring decision, an anomaly in the time-space continuum or whatever strange twist of fate the may have resulted in your reporting line, here are some initial keys to consider when attempting to manage upwards:

  • Strengthening the connection: Exerting influence requires a trusting relationship.  How can you relate more fully to connect with your manager and appreciate the bigger context in which they operate?
  • Going above and beyond while remaining grounded: stopping and asking what strategic problems your manager is working to solve ensures any suggestions originate from understanding rather than assumptions.
  • Demonstrating engagement: a common mistake in aspiring to make progress is assuming that doing a job well will increase the chances of promotion, yet research shows that promotions generally require doing more than what you are hired to do. What opportunities are around you to extend yourself and take on additional challenges that can increase the success of your team?
  • Seek performance clarity – outside of the formal performance management process there are windows of opportunity to look in the mirror and understand the identity you have built at work. Finding the opportunity to step away from the day to day and reflect together in a coaching conversation with your manager will allow you to ask how you can improve your performance and thereby your future at work.
  • Contemplating the context. Often invisible to direct reports is the complex web of power and influence surrounding a manager.  It can be useful to consider what dynamics at higher layers of the organisation may be thwarting the efforts of your manager to operate strategically.

Is any of this really “managing” upwards or merely managing your own efforts and aspirations?  For the majority of managers, this factual approach may be preferable to the fiction of anyone really being able to manage anyone else — especially upwards!

About Vanessa Fudge

Vanessa founded coaching and consulting firm Leading Well on the belief that leadership and wellness belong together. Through her extensive experience in mentoring and coaching leaders, Vanessa has found that companies that thrive ensure they raise the overall wellbeing of their people. Vanessa is also a non-executive Director of Vanessa’s core competencies include leadership coaching, organisational change, coaching skills development, mentoring program design and facilitation, cultural transformation and vision and strategy setting. Currently Vanessa is co-authoring three books with international coaching and mentoring export David Clutterbuck from London University for Sage Press. The works cover team coaching, best practice mentoring programs and coaching and mentoring practices in Asia Pacific. Vanessa was recently the author and lecturer in the Sydney Business School ‘Applied Coaching Skills’ module for the University of Wollongong’s Masters of Business Coaching. She is passionate about quality facilitation and trains coaches nationally as well as supporting a team of coaches in a mentoring role. Vanessa’s clients include Dept Family and Community Services, Lifeline, RSPCA, Vinnies, The Garvan Institute,, Australian Dept of Defence, Australian Sports Commission, The Royal Australian Navy, AirServices and Spirit of Tasmania. Vanessa is a registered Psychologist specialising in organisational system dynamics; a coach supervisor and member of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). [email protected]

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  1. Pingback: Managing Up: Fact or Fiction – Leading Well Group

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