How to … manage upwards

by 13 Dec 2006

Management is a two-way street, and effective managers need to maintain and develop good relationships – not only with their teams, but with their senior managers, too.

As an HR professional, you will also need to be able to exert influence upwards – whether directed towards an immediate superior, or a wider senior team – to drive and deliver appropriate HR policies.

“As well as influencing direction, effectively managing upwards can help to alleviate pressure on both sides, by managing and aligning expectations, and reducing the incidence of management by interference,” says Graeme Leith, managing director of Morgan Leith Partnership.

Remember, it is estimated that you will have upwards of 20 managers during your career. Mastering the art of managing upwards will probably result in you having more fun at work and doing better in your career.

Where do I start?

Form a thorough understanding of the person to be managed or influenced, and their raison d’etre. Appreciating what motivates, disheartens, or even frustrates the individual will help you to understand their priorities. What defines their working style? Under what circumstances are they likely to feel pressured? What are their expectations and scope of their role? Do they have any burning issues?

Put yourself in their shoes and try to get under their skin. Confirm what it is they want as this will bypass common misunderstandings and enable you to successfully meet and surpass their requirements and expectations.

Understand yourself

Be aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, as how you behave in the relationship is just as important as what makes your manager tick – it is also the part over which you exercise greatest control. Contemplate your personal style of management and gauge whether you have any obstructive personality traits. Conversely, you may have attributes that will smooth the path of the relationship, so identify them and utilise them fully.

Relationship building

Having acquired an understanding of your manager and yourself, it is time to develop the practical side of the relationship. This should extend to being fully conversant with and sensitive to their timetable. Don’t, for instance, present your best ideas 24 hours before a board meeting, as they will be preoccupied with the next day’s agenda.

You should also have determined whether your boss is a ‘reader’ or a ‘listener’ (management guru Peter Drucker claims all managers fall into these two categories). Readers prefer information presented to them in report form, so they can study it methodically, while listeners would rather have the information presented orally.

Create an environment of mutual respect, where if you know they have weaknesses, or even dislike certain aspects of their job, you can offer to take on or share those duties. Above all, keep the lines of communication between you open and lively to ensure you stay on side and share priorities.

What skills do I need?

One of the most important is communication, which needs to be approached in a considerate, sensitive manner, and with appropriate timing. If you are querying a decision or challenging an action, you will need to deploy tact and diplomacy. An ability to empathise is also valuable as individuals with high levels of emotional intelligence tend to be skilful at managing upwards, as well as those who are good problem-solvers. But it is not only about soft skills: you need to be assertive and subtle and unnoticed when influencing your manager.

Finally, you must be a strategic and visionary thinker. If your manager knows you have a roadmap, and can plan in line with that, as well as keeping an eye on the bigger picture, they will be more likely to trust your judgement on matters, and run with your ideas.

For more information


How to Manage Your Boss, Christopher Hegarty, Ballantine Books, ISBN 034531817X

How to Manage Your Boss: Developing the Perfect Working Relationship, Ros Jay, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0273659316

Second opinion on managing upwards

Graeme Leith, founder and managing director, The Morgan Leith Partnership

Can anyone manage upwards?

Any individual with direct access to their manager and/or other senior managers can learn to manage upwards. It is important to ensure the adopted approach is in line with the manager's known behaviours.

When should your approach to managing upwards differ?

Managers who are characteristically unpredictable or idiosyncratic may force a more structured and generic approach. Only base your assumptions on demonstrated or known behavioural patterns.

What is the most difficult aspect of managing upwards?

One of the most difficult challenges is exerting influence without undermining the manager/subordinate parameters and relationship. Matching influencing actions, timings and style to the manager's preferences should help achieve a win-win situation.

What are the three most significant things you can do when managing upwards?

Tune in: Establish effective communication with those being managed. Make time to develop a mutually rewarding relationship.

Prove yourself: A proven track record establishes credibility, and opportunities to influence will increase.

Think ahead: Anticipate the manager's expectations and take the appropriate steps to manage, deliver or exceed them.

Can you give examples of good upward managers?

The very nature of effective upward management dictates that the most effective upwards managers will be invisible to the public eye; it is perhaps more pertinent to consider those who have tried and failed. High-profile politicians, journalists and world-class footballers have all suffered the consequences of attempts to use the media to 'manage their manager'.

By Scott Beagrie. Courtesy of Personnel Today magazine.


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