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Why 'managing up' can be the key to career success

Two women analyzing documents while sitting on a table in office. Woman executives at work in office discussing some paperwork.
Managing up is about figuring out how to be a genuine source of help, understanding what makes your boss tick and being able to anticipate their needs. Photo: Getty

Up to a point, many of us will put up with a heavy workload, occasional overtime and a salary that should probably be higher. A bad boss, however, is hard to ignore.

Whether they’re incompetent, indecisive or aggressive, a bad relationship with a manager is one of the main reasons we’re likely to quit a job. According to a survey of UK workers by the Equality Group, 49% have wanted to or have quit a job because of poor management.

While handing in your resignation may seem like the obvious solution, this isn’t always possible. So as an alternative to searching for a new job with the perfect boss, it might be worth considering trying to work more smoothly with the boss you have — by managing up.

“Your relationship with your line manager is the most important relationship in terms of your career,” says career coach Sarah Stoddart Burrows, of Thrive Career Coaching. “They’re the ones who decide who gets the juicy assignments, who gets talked about in front of the senior leadership team and who gets lined up as promotion material in the succession plan.

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“Managing up simply means making the effort to form a strong working relationship with your manager,” she adds. “It’s about how you can get to know their character, working preferences and management style better and adapt to that so that you have the most successful and productive working relationship.”

Lauren Webb, founder of Yellow Eve, an online platform which offers career advice and virtual sessions for women, adds that an employee who can successfully manage up will enable their manager to achieve their goals, realise their ambition and grow the potential of their team members.

“This, in turn, means employees can carve out a more fulfilling career,” she says. “A manager has the ability to assist people’s growth and development potential, enabling employees to be recognised and build a positive reputation in the company. Employees need to have clarity on specific goals, have regular appraisals and ensure work priorities align.

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“Managing up means that employees play a more active role in ensuring these components are undertaken and challenged when they are not.”

Managing up is a term that is often misunderstood. It’s not about manipulating your manager or playing mind games to get what you want, but building a two-way relationship with your boss and finding ways to communicate productively, even if you tend to clash.

Essentially, managing up is about figuring out how to be a genuine source of help, understanding what makes your boss tick and being able to anticipate their needs.

“Managing up in the workplace is often thought of as ‘sucking up’ to the management team above you, and women often avoid the idea of ‘managing up’ based on this perception,” Burrows explains.

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“However, this idea is misplaced. By working on having a strong relationship with your manager you are better placed to discuss challenges in the team or why your bosses next ‘great idea’ might need some tweaks.”

The key to any successful relationship is trust and the relationship with your manager is no different. “This isn’t about manipulation, it’s about being flexible and adapting your own style to work well with them. A big part of this is building up trust between you: you should be their safe pair of hands,” she adds.

For the most part, we expect to receive direction and instruction from our managers. But anyone who has worked for a boss will understand that this isn’t always the case. Managers may be overworked and pulled in different directions, leaving less time for day-to-day directives.

It’s also possible that they may simply not have the skills or character traits necessary for good management. According to research by Gallup, only one in 10 people possess the necessary attributes — such as being able to motivate and engage employees, being assertive enough to overcome problems, creating a culture of accountability, or building relationships that create trust and making decisions based on productivity rather than politics.

By managing up, it may possible to negate at least some of the negative effects of bad — or distracted — management. However, it’s important to be aware of the cons too. If your boss is a bully and unlikely to change their bad habits, managing up may not be possible.

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“It can be great, but when you’re starting to get ready for your next promotion, make sure to start lining up natural successors for tasks that you carry out in this kind of capacity,” Burrows advises. “You’ll want to make sure that being seen as ‘irreplaceable’ by your current manager doesn’t get in the way of your next career move.”

Managing up must also be a company-wide cultural expectation in order to maximise the benefits, Webb warns. “Employees may quickly feel stressed, under-appreciated and overwhelmed if they go above and beyond their own duties to support a boss when it is not reciprocated,” she says.

“Having boundaries, ensuring due credit is received and prioritising learning and development opportunities is crucial to an individual’s career development,” she adds. “If a manager or team is incompetent or inefficient, potential pros and risks must be weighed up on an individual case basis. It may be that employees have to inspire ‘managing up’ as an adopted behaviour in a workplace in order to reap the rewards.”

And successfully managing up may make you your manager’s right-hand person, which may mean longer hours and more responsibilities.

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That being said, the benefits of forming a strong working relationship with your manager can pay dividends. “You’ll be seen as the natural choice for those tasks that come along that give you the edge for your next promotion, and your manager will be your biggest advocate to the senior leadership team,” Burrows says.

“Not only that, but challenging relationships with a manager are one of the biggest causes of stress in the workplace, so putting the effort into avoiding this scenario makes sense for your own sanity.”

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