Your boss is the most important person in your job. You can influence this relationship to be productive, effective and satisfying to both and you boss. ‘Managing up’ or ‘managing upwards’ is the systematic process of working with your boss to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss and your organization. When you manage upwards, you show leadership on your own part. What’s more; when you successfully manage your boss you boost your career prospects.
Most people know the importance of managing their relationships with the people who report to them, but you would be surprised at the number of people who forget to manage their most important working relationship – the one with their boss. Everyone has a boss, but all too often people don’t think of acting systematically to reap the benefits from working at this relationship.
You are both dependent on each other to be successful
Actually, you are mutually dependent. Bosses need your cooperation, reliability, and honesty, while you need them for making connections with executive management, for setting priorities, and for obtaining critical resources. Even if you find your boss has some definite shortcomings, it’s in your best interest, and your responsibility, to make the relationship work as smoothly as possible.
Just think for a moment about the bosses you have had and what you actually did or didn’t do to strengthen your working relationship with them. We all fall into a pattern of behavior and tend to repeat it over time – mistakes and all!
You have a great opportunity to ensure your relationship with your boss is positive and productive. It’s in both your interests to maintain a good professional understanding with plenty of communication.
If you actively manage your relationship, your boss will be more supportive when the time comes for performance reviews and salary reviews. You could be fast-tracking your career! Therefore, consider what you can do to improve your professional relationship, especially by adapting your behavior to suit your boss’s work style.
Treat your boss as your key stakeholder
One of your most important jobs is to support your own boss. In the chain of command, leaders must always present a united front to the truths. A public display of discontent or disagreement with the chain of command undermines the authority of leaders at all levels. This can cause major problems to the performance of an organization.
Your immediate boss can play a critical role in linking you to the rest of the organization, making sure your priorities are consistent with organizational needs, and in securing the resources you need to perform well. Don’t see yourself as practically self-sufficient, in not needing the critical information and resources your boss can supply.
Anticipate what your boss needs
Ensure your work anticipates your boss’s needs and expectations. Clarify what your boss expects from you. Ask direct questions like, “What are your priorities for me?” and “What criteria should I take into account when making decisions?” And find out how your boss prefers to work with you, including how often you two should meet and when they expect you to be reachable by email and phone. Knowing these expectations now could save you headaches in the future.
Your best approach is to manage the relationship through a stakeholder relations management strategy. You can take specific actions to strengthen the relationship with your direct boss. Your boss may be the CEO, a vice-president, a general manager or other senior manager. Perhaps your boss is the head of the communication function. As an effective professional you need to commit the time and effort to develop a sound relationship with your boss that meets the needs of you both.
Your ability at small talk makes a big impression on your boss
Small talk may not seem to be overly important, but it is the foundation for almost every other type of conversation. Most people engage in it every day, although to do it well is not as easy as it might seem. Small talk is light, informal conversation that takes place when we are speaking face-to-face with others, and through channels like phone conversations and even social media. Therefore, we need to be good at both. Such soft skills are crucial in business – and especially with your boss. When done well, small talk shows:
- You communicate well with others (especially important with your boss)
- You show empathy and support towards them
- You listen actively to them
- You have respect for them
- You are strengthening your relationship with them.
These are some of the important ways you can conduct small talk with your boss:
- Prepare if possible
- Ask questions
- Praise them
- Behave as though you like them
- Actively listen
- Mirror their non-verbal behavior (as discussed below)
Read my article, “How you can master small talk and make a big impression,” for some great tips on making a good impression when you engage in small talk with your boss.
Mirror you boss’s language as well as their non-verbal behavior
- Observe your boss’s communication style. Do they ramble in conversations? Are they brief? An introvert? Or an extrovert? If you have an introverted boss and you are very extraverted in meetings, you may start to alienate your boss. So stay on the same wavelength.
You will make a lot of progress in your relationship with your boss when you mirror their non-verbal behavior, as discussed in my article, “Mirroring another person’s body language builds good rapport.” But don’t overdo it! You need to be authentic about adopting some aspects of their body language without going ‘over the top’ with it.
In addition, you can mirror their language through ‘linguistic mirroring,’ speaking in the same or similar way as your boss. When you mirror the other person’s communication style, they are likely to find you more persuasive. Observe how they like to communicate. For instance, if your boss tends to use linear (straight-line) logical reasoning, you are more likely to gain their support when you use a lot of facts in your discussions. If your boss has a more narrative, chatty, informal style, you might start your conversation or presentation with a story.
Closely observe your boss attitudes and behavior
The authors of this article, “Want to win someone over? Talk like they do.“, which was published in the Harvard Business Review in 2020, suggest considering the following points:
- To prove a point, does your [boss] tend to rely on facts and data or on anecdotal evidence and storytelling? When they comment on other people’s presentations, what arguments do they single out as most persuasive?
- When they communicate, do they exude confidence and expertise or take a humbler approach? To what extent are they swayed by credentials and expert endorsements?
- How much do they disclose personal information and convey their emotions versus remaining more professional and detached? When they do tell personal stories, how much vulnerability do they express?
- When asking a question or making a point, do they tend to be emotional and energetic or calm and collected?
They also say you can observe their preferred types of communication, and can therefore do these more yourself :
In addition, take note of their preferred communication tactics. Does the person you’re trying to influence prefer a write-up, a PowerPoint presentation, or a free-flowing conversation? When they lead a meeting, how far in advance do they tend to provide materials, and how much do they expect people to study those materials before the meeting versus walking through them live?
Checklist to manage your boss
Professors John Gabarro & John Kotter provided this useful checklist in their 2005 Harvard Business Review article:
Make sure you understand your boss and their context, including their:
- Goals and objectives
- Strengths, weaknesses and blind spots
- Preferred work style
Assess yourself and your needs, including your:
- Strengths and weaknesses
- Personal style
- Tendency towards dependence on authority figures
- How you can support them with their own boss.
Develop and maintain a relationship that:
- Fits both your needs and styles
- Is characterized by mutual expectations
- Keeps your boss informed
- Is based on reliability and honesty
- Selectively uses your boss’s time and resources.
Information is valuable
Keep your boss in the loop. Don’t assume your boss knows how productive you are or what you are working on. This is especially important while so many people are working remotely. The most important information managers want to know is the progress that’s being made on a project. As a result, you need to ask yourself: “Am I sharing the progress I’m making day-to-day or week-to-week?” You can also ask your boss directly: “Am I giving you enough information about progress?” or “Are there any decisions or projects you wish I were more transparent about?” Most bosses get annoyed if they have been kept in the dark on important issues. If your boss in turn has a boss, your boss is likely to be asked about progress on current issues. It’s important to have a good understanding of what kind of information would be useful and sufficient to your boss when they are asked for an update on those issues.
Some bosses will spell out their expectations clearly and in great detail. But most do not. Therefore, you have to be responsible for finding out what your boss’s expectations and needs are. These can be broad (such as what kinds of problems the boss wishes to be informed about, and when) as well as very specific (for instance, when a project should be completed and what kinds of information the boss needs in the meantime).
Possibly the most constructive way to manage up is to make sure you’re clear on what your boss expects of you. Without clear expectations, it’s easy to stray outside your brief, misinterpret a comment, or be offended by a request. Instead, make it your mission to clarify two things in particular: (1) What ‘success’ looks like (2) How to communicate well to achieve that ‘success.’ Claire Lew, 2019 suggests some questions you can ask to achieve this:
- “What things will I need to accomplish this year for you to view me in this role as ‘successful’?”
- “What does quality work look like to you?”
- “If I need your attention on something urgent, what type of communication do you prefer? (e.g., Slack, an email, a phone call.)”
- “What do you consider ‘urgent’ versus ‘not urgent’?”
- “If I have any feedback, how would you prefer to receive it – in person, in writing, over the phone, or during a video call?”
- “If I have a suggestion about something, how would you prefer to receive it – in writing, in person, over the phone, or during a video call?”
- “If I have a question, what form of communication should I use to put the questions to you? (e.g., In writing, in person, over the phone, during a video call).”
- You also need to understand the boss’s priorities. What may seem like a small error to you might look like a systemic failure to a boss with a broader range of responsibilities to manage. So you should be mindful how your performance affects your boss’s success.
- Ask questions at the beginning of a project so you understand the expectations. Often, we believe we are supposed to know things, and don’t ask for clarification because we don’t want to be seen as incompetent. But managers judge incompetence after something is done incorrectly. Take a little extra time to get that clarity, and develop an understanding for what your boss expects.
As a communicator, you can offer unique added value to your boss because you may become privy to some corporate information even before your boss does. This is because you may pick up important information while interviewing senior managers from other areas of the organization in the course of your work, from being briefed on important statutory information such as annual reports and reports to the stock exchange, and also when you are called in very early to be briefed about important corporate issues that require an urgent communication response. Where appropriate, you can alert your boss to this type of breaking news, acting as an early warning system for them. This approach worked extremely well for me with a boss who was general manager of a division in which I was based – he always wanted to be one of the first to be ‘in the know’ about significant events, so when he was in contact with the managing director he would always appear knowledgeable about important matters.
Stakeholder relations plan to manage your boss
One productive activity is to draw up your own personal written stakeholder relations plan to help you informally shape your relationship with your boss. This could involve making an effort to take an interest in their professional and personal interests and hobbies as well as their business role. Even simple clues such as the objects, photographs and certificates in their office can be very revealing and provide good insights.
A written plan may seem a bit calculating and mercenary, but what doesn’t get planned generally doesn’t get done! Depending on the seniority of your boss, the sort of actions you could plan and implement:
- Always alert them to significant corporate issues as you become aware of them.
- Arrange personal communication, media and presentation skills coaching for them.
- Organize their attendance at professional development briefings on business communication, eg on stakeholder relations management or issue management, especially if your boss is in senior management and isn’t broadly aware of the full scope and potential of the communication role.
- Set up networking opportunities for them.
- Arrange for them to host relevant stakeholders at the corporate box at sporting and cultural events.
- Obtain publicity for them in professional publications.
- Contribute or ‘ghost-write’ articles in their name in your organization’s publication and in professional association publications.
Develop the relationship over time
The important thing with a stakeholder relations plan relating to your boss is not to be too ambitious with its implementation – make it happen systematically over a manageable period of time. Don’t be intimidated by the time it might take and don’t let it fade away as you deal with the inevitable other pressing issues that confront you in your job. Most of the value in such a plan comes from the way it enables you to develop a strong relationship with your boss by consistent actions over time. This builds trust and shows your integrity.
Work back from the outcomes you want
Simply work back from the outcomes you want from the boss, which may mean small but significant responses on their part. Break down the actions involved in each component of the plan into small manageable steps that you can implement over 12 months. At the end of that time you will be able to look back with surprise and satisfaction at how much you have actually been able to do to cement a strong working relationship with your boss.
Be proactive. Don’t wait to be told what to do. If you know your boss will need information for a report, don’t wait for them to come to you for the information. Instead, ask what you can do to help them prepare.
Offer solutions, not problems. No manager likes having problems dumped in their lap without some suggested solutions. Always offer at least one suggested solution if you can.
Make your KPIs worthwhile
Also, if you are working to an agreed set of personal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in your job, make sure they are worthwhile and not just there because they are measurable. Try to make the KPIs relate to outcomes rather than merely activity. For instance, if one of your tasks during the year is to conduct a stakeholder relations survey of your own personal or departmental stakeholders, don’t just tick the box that you have completed the survey within the agreed time; drill more deeply for a set of actions (changed behavior) that the survey findings point to – and put together an action plan for those changes. You can then show your boss the tangible changes (improvements) you have made in response to the survey. This helps you justify your position if hard questions are asked down the track.
Use your boss’s own performance agreement as a guide
Many employers use written performance agreements for their staff. Such a document would be the key to your work for the year. The agreement should be prepared by your boss and yourself in conjunction and should include realistic but challenging targets. You should regularly review with your boss the details and deadlines in the document.
In turn, your boss’s own formal performance agreement, or similar, is a vital guide to you. By knowing what your boss’s targets are, you can ensure you play your part in helping your boss to meet those targets. By all means ask your boss for a copy of the document, or the parts that may be relevant to you, so that you can do your job better – which will enable them to their job better. In this way you can successfully manage your boss on key elements of his performance agreement that relate to your work.
Example of an actual performance management agreement
The communication component of one operational general manager’s real-life performance agreement includes the following measures:
- Develop an internal communication strategy by 31 March.
- Prepare a stakeholder relations strategy by 31 May.
- Undertake a survey of medium and high priority external stakeholder groups by 30 September.
- Conduct a communication audit of managers and staff by 30 November.
Developing a workable set of mutual expectations requires you to communicate your own expectations to your boss to find out if they are realistic, and to influence the boss to accept the ones that are important to you. Being able to influence the boss to value your expectations can be especially important if the boss is an over-achiever. Such a person will often set unrealistically high standards that need to be brought into line with reality.
Identify what frustrates your boss, and avoid doing it. Don’t they like people arriving late for meetings? Don’t they like interruptions in meetings? Find out and don’t do what annoys your boss. If you are able to develop a good relationship with their PA, you can ask them what actions to avoid so you don’t annoy the boss.
Manage your boss when working remotely
Most of the above principles still apply when you are not working in the office. The experts recommend you develop an open and honest relationship, consistent working styles, and positive expectations of each other. You both benefit when build trust and mutual understanding, despite the geographic distance, when working remotely or in a hybrid mode. The onus is on you to keep your communication active with your boss so that distance doesn’t fade your relationship.
When working at a distance, it is vital to listen and observe effectively to what your boss is communicating to you. The way they communicate with you electronically is still a valuable guide for you. Video meetings and conferencing still enable you to hear and observe the whole range of individual communication. You are still able to interpret their language, tone, energy, body language, facial expressions, as noted above for in-person contact. At the same time you need to ensure your own verbal and non-verbal behavior reflects well on you via the screen.
It’s important in remote meetings with you boss to look the part, so keep the camera eye of your laptop or desktop computer at your own eye level so it’s on level terms with you! If you leave the camera below your eye level, your audience members, especially if your boss is the only member, is likely to feel they are looking up your nose, and you are literally looking down your nose at them. And this puts a strain on your neck, shoulders and back. Yet just about all stock photos of people using their laptop for a virtual meeting show the laptop placed on the desk rather than sitting on a base of some kind. It’s all very well from your end when you are looking down at the images on the screen, but when you look up at the settings, you are likely to present a good angle up your nose!
Check your image that others, especially your boss, see of you shows you from a couple of inches above your head down to your upper chest. If the camera is too high, as if you are taking a selfie, it can lessen your presence. And sit at a suitable distance from the camera so people can see enough of your face without you being so close they can view all your facial blemishes. Sitting too close also makes your head look round. If you sit too far away from the camera, it makes you appear small, which can subconsciously send a signal that you may be a bit weak, nervous or possibly disengaged. Ideally, lean forward so you look like you are interested in the interchange. These points should help your posture as well as make you look engaged.
Nod and smile to your boss. Nodding your head when the boss makes a point is a nice, silent way of acknowledging what they are saying during a Zoom call. This technique is used a lot by television reporters, especially when they are based overseas. You find them nodding as they are being introduced and it helps to fill the slight sound delay that is inevitable with ‘live crosses.’ Smiling in greeting and in response from a comment from the boss is a signal of trust – they know that you are listening and reacting in good faith.
And don’t look distracted, by glancing around. And don’t look at your digital phone sitting on the desk or table beside you! It looks unnatural for you to glance and even keep glancing away. People can’t help noticing this and forming a negative opinion in your lack of interest. Instead, your body language and verbal language should be conveying your openness, interest, and engagement in the discussion. Remembering to smile and nod at your boss when appropriate during Zoom will help you successfully manage your boss.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.