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Manage Your Boss – 8 ways to “manage up”

Is it really posible to manage your boss? If so, is it really necessary? After all, it can be hard enough managing those we’re responsible for without “managing up” also!

Whether or not you agree with trying to manage your boss, it’s still important to understand how he or she works. And from there, perhaps you’ll be one step close to being a more effective manager yourself.

In our previous articles we’ve considered some different approaches to time management. These suggest that it’s not really time we need to manage – it’s how we use it.

So crucially, it’s important to consider the idea of quality time. Especially, how we make most productive use of our time. And one of the most critical factors in answering that question is the relationship we have with our boss.

What could be a more effective use of time than ensuring we have a mutually effective relationship with our own line managers? But conversely, what could have a worse impact on our time management than when things are difficult between you and your boss?

What do you do when working with your boss is hard work? Well, before you do anything, think about our tips to help you manage your boss – our 8 ways to manage up.


Manage Your Boss – 8 ways to “manage up”

Manage your boss

1 First try to understand your boss.
2 Don’t try to be a transformer.
3 Build on strengths.
4 Focus strengths on things that matter.
5 Find out what works.
6 Build your relationship.
7 How to avoid being overloaded or having your time wasted.
8 Build a bigger network.


1 – First Try to Understand Your Boss

In the classic Harvard Business Review article: “Managing Your Boss”, John Kotter and John Gabarro suggest several ways to achieve this.

They state that you need to ensure you understand your boss, and her working context, by understanding her:

Goals and objectives;
Pressures and issues;
Strengths, weaknesses and blind spots;
Preferred workstyle.

Then, you need to do the same for yourself.

As Kotter and Gabarro discovered in their research, it may seem an unusual expectation to “manage up” but the need to do so is obvious.

“Just think of the job and how to be effective in it. How do you get the resources you need, the information you need, the advice, even the permission to keep at it? The answers always point toward whoever has the power, the leverage – that is, the boss. To fail to make that relationship one of mutual respect and understanding is to miss a major factor in being effective.”

Trying to manage your boss makes sense because it makes your job easier.

2 – Manage Your Boss: Don’t Try To be a Reformer!

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Accept that your boss is human, with strengths and limitations just like yourself. As we’ve discussed in other articles, it’s a far more productive approach to build on strengths, than trying to remedy limitations. If that’s good advice for managing your own staff, it’s equally good advice when trying to manage your boss.

So ask yourself: “what can your boss do really well?” Where do her strengths lie?It is tempting to try changing the way your boss works. Especially if you feel things aren’t going well.

However, it’s difficult trying to change personal preferences, habits, styles, and agendas. Difficult and not necessarily time well spent. The important thing is coming to understand what makes your boss tick, and developing an effective working relationship.

Far better to work on the basis of that relationship, and the way in which it’s conducted, than to try to change your boss. Ensure you meet regularly with your boss and try to develop a professional relationship based on mutual trust and respect.

Peter Drucker put it well when he said: “It takes far more energy to improve from incompetence to mediocrity than to improve from first-rate performance to excellence”.

We all feel good when we get better at what we’re already good at!

3 – Build on Strengths

One effective way to manage your boss is supporting them in doing what they themselves are good at. Discuss their strengths and how they can be most effectively employed. Offer your own support in doing this, perhaps by taking on other roles yourself, especially those which utilize your strengths. Ensure your boss is familiar with the the concept of strengths-based management. Point out the value of this approach, both up and down the management hierarchy.

4 – Focus Strengths on Things That Matter

Of course strengths matter, but their real value only comes when they are applied to the things that matter. In his book: “The Effective Executive“, Peter Drucker suggested consideration of the following:

To answer the question: “what does my boss do really well?”, ask “what has she done really well?” Where is the evidence of what she’s very good at?

Then ask: “what does she need to get from me to perform?”

Encourage the activities which build on strengths, but which deliver the goals and objectives discussed in step one.

5 – To Manage Your Boss – Find Out What Works

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Before you get the wrong impression, this is not an article about “crawling” to the boss. You need to start out with what you consider to be the right things to do. Then find ways to communicate these to your boss, and to get them accepted. Don’t forget we are all different, so it’s important to understand which method of communication and discussion is most appropriate for each particular boss.

In “The Effective Executive”, Drucker suggests that some people are “listeners” and others are “readers”. Some prefer to talk to understand, others must first read before discussing. If your boss is a listener, brief her in person and then follow up with a memo. If she is a reader, cover important points of your proposal in a memo or report, then discuss them. How can you encourage you boss to be involved in doing more things that they are good at? Remember this isn’t something you’re trying to do to your boss. Rather you’re trying to do things and comunicate ideas in a way that relates to their strengths.

If your boss is particularly good with your clients, but demands of work are restricting her time to do that, then make sure that you invite her out to meet important clients on a regular basis. Show appreciation of what she has done, and the value that her involvement brings.

Ask your boss to do something, propose activities which you know build on their strengths. Your efforts to manage your boss should be guided by what works for your boss.

6 -To Manage Your Boss – Build Your Relationship

How you go about building your relationship does of course depend on many factors. We’ve already discussed the need for good, regular, open communication. This should ideally help build trust, respect and understanding. The ease with which you can support them will naturally vary. Your ability to influence your boss will depend on how well you’ve understood the four factors discussed earlier: goals, pressure, strength and weaknesses, and preferred style.

Our forthcoming article “managing by friendship” suggests a counter-culture approach to managing. It may be that many of us would not count our boss as our friends. In fact in our articles: What Makes a Happy Company and The Value Of A Good Manager? People Leave Managers Not Companies we see that survey evidence points towards many of us finding our boss to be the least person we’d want to spend time with!

In this case you may prefer to manage your boss by spending as little time as possible with him!

If this is the kind of boss you have what do you do? We cover this in our forthcoming article “Managing a Difficult boss.”

Where to go from here:


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