By Ellie Hearne

“I want to get good at managing up.”

We hear this a lot. And in my experience people tend to want to manage up for two reasons:

  1. They find their boss to be ineffective and have to spend time/effort working around them.

  2. They are ambitious - and frustrated that they have someone above them who isn’t helping them get where they want to go.

So what is “managing up”?

Managing up is all about getting the most from your working relationship with your boss. For some people, that can mean truly “managing their manager” because the boss is not delivering on basic things: clarity around expectations of one’s role, timely, actionable feedback, effective delegation, etc.

For others, it might be more aspirational. I.e., “My relationship with my boss is great - they get everything they expect from me and are clearly happy with my work. But I’d love to get more exposure to new challenges, have license to speak up more in meetings with senior stakeholders, and position myself for a promotion. For these things, I need my manager to be my advocate within the organization.”

Managing Up | when your boss isn’t delivering…

If you’re not getting what you need from your manager, your approach will depend on your relationship with them. Do you have a personable relationship, but there are just one or two things you’d like to improve? Start with a conversation. Leverage what you know of their work and communication styles to frame your approach. For example:

“One of the things I really value about our working relationship is how you give me timely, actionable feedback after projects. What I’d benefit from in addition, is a little clearer direction upfront.” (Have examples ready.)

Or

“I tend to perform best when I’m given a little direction before being left alone to execute. If you’re comfortable with it, can I do [name of project] with a longer leash and check-in with you just once or twice?”

Of course, as we say a lot around here, one size does not fit all. Be sure to adapt your approach based on how well you know the boss, how long you’ve been working together, your working relationship thus far, and what exactly you’re asking.

Managing Up | to move up

If you want to manage up to get a promotion or more exposure to different parts of the organization, for example, your approach will have to be a little more strategic.

First, make sure you’re delivering on everything that’s expected of you. If you’re dead-set on getting a promotion but aren’t doing something outlined in your existing job description, guess what? No one will promote you. And think beyond your job description: ask your manager what they want to see you achieve.

Next, consider whether your manager is delivering on everything that’s expected of him or her. And ask yourself, Are my expectations reasonable? If the person is also managing a dozen other direct reports and is wearing a few different hats, you’ll have to be extra sensitive to the fact that your career trajectory will be lower on their priority list.

Start with how your aspirational goal will help the organization. It’s of course important to have goals that help you as an individual develop and advance, but in your manager’s eyes that will always be secondary to getting the work done in ways that reflect well on their team, organization, and company as a whole.

You should also consider the organizational climate. If the company’s undergoing a challenging time, you might want to shelve your ask until things are running a little more smoothly.

In sum…

Beyond these two broader categories, there are a lot of moving pieces to “managing up.” Be guided by what’s right for the team/company, your boss’s style and approach, and what exactly you’re hoping to achieve.

You can also talk to us for a little more direction…


Ellie Hearne is a leadership-communications expert and founder of Pencil or Ink. She has worked with Apple, Google, Kate Spade, Marriott, Morgan Stanley, Oracle, Pfizer, Piaget, Spotify, Starbucks, and Twitter, among others, and has coached numerous individuals and teams. Ellie can be reached herehere, and here.