How to Manage Upward (5 Tips)

by | Apr 11, 2020

nicoa dunne
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Managing upward isn’t just a political game. It’s actually a very strategic way of interacting with your leaders. You may be functionally or operationally responsible for influencing these individuals, and I want to give you some tips on how to do that.

Who do you have to influence in upper management at your organization? What are you doing to effectively influence them and simultaneously stand out among all the others around you? Rather than a sneaky tactic to manipulate your managers into getting you what YOU want, managing up means finding strategic ways to support your management so that the benefits trickle down to you and other members of the team.

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1. Remember Why They Hired You

Remember why they hired you. This is a two-way agreement. You have an employment contract with this organization to get a job done, but they also have an obligation to partner and collaborate with you and give you the resources you need to be successful, right?

They’re going to pay you. They’re going to give you benefits. And in exchange, you have to figure out the ways you’re going to get the job done efficiently and effectively.

Managing upward is one of those ways, so you must remember why you’re there. It’s not for you to sit in the corner, hide, put your head down, and just do the work. You must be in a partnership with your organization for real success for them and for you and your own career. Keep that in mind with every interaction.

2. Get to Know Your Leadership

Get to know your leadership. Now, I’m not telling you to spend the weekends with everybody and socialize with your leaders outside of work every week, but getting to know them is a very powerful relationship tool for influencing them.

Don’t forget to tell them about your world, your life, and your family as well. Your leaders are much more likely to partner with you and support you when you need their support and championship going forward in your career if they feel they know who you are and can relate to you.

Make sure you’re shadowing their door frequently. Whether you are in person or virtual, this means checking to tell them good morning, and it means asking them questions about their family, and about their activities over the weekend. If you want to have the leverage to influence, then you need to be visible and put in the effort to get to know them above and beyond the job. Make sure to go out of your way not only to find out more about them but to share more about YOU.

3. Understand the Pressures They Face

This one is critical. You need to be clear about how your leaders are being measured in their given roles. The same way your performance is measured by your direct leadership, they also have performance measures to meet as well. What are those key metrics and how are they driving your leader to behave the way they do? How do they know their job has been successful? Do you know the answers to these questions? You should.

Typically, we spend so much time focused on our own objectives that we forget to ask if we’re aligned with the success of our leader. So asking your boss, “What are your key metrics, and how does that prioritize the work I’m doing?” draws the line to what success looks like for the entire organization, not just you.

Not only should you be able to draw the line from the work you’ve done to the work of the boss you’re influencing, but you must also be able to draw that line up to the ultimate success of the whole organization. This is part of that two-way contract. So make the attempt to partner and collaborate with your leadership. Make sure you’re asking them, “What does success look like for you? How can I adapt my responsibilities to make you successful? How will you know if I am successful in doing so?”

4. Retrain Your Perception of Leadership

Okay. Be honest with me here. How do you perceive your manager? Do you believe in them? Do you have preconceived judgments of them? How are you talking about them when you’re not in the office or with your colleagues? Are your responses filled with judgments? You should always assume positive intent when it comes to your leader’s intentions. That means that in all decisions your leader makes, as a starting point, you should assume they only have the best interest of the team in mind.

When you assume positive intent, you are simply reminding yourself that we’re all in this together and are demonstrating your engagement and commitment to the organization. I want you to pause for a moment and ask yourself, “Do I judge my leadership positively or negatively? Am I talking about them behind their backs when I come home from work? Do I assume positive intent? How is my perception of my leadership helping or harming the success of the organization?”

It is imperative that you step back and recognize that your leader is just like you—they put their pants on one leg at a time just like you do. I invite you to recognize the power of removing unnecessary judgments and making sure that you are open-minded to what could be possible. You have moved the blinders away, and you’re open to that collaborative dialogue with your leadership. Can you see yourself there?

If you really want to influence them, truly manage upward effectively and get what you need, it is imperative that you begin by suspending any disbelief that they are there to partner with and support you. 

I remember an example when I was in the c-suite, working in a boardroom meeting for about four hours with about ten of my peers. Let me tell you, it was super stressful. The goal was to make sure that the decisions we made that day were in the best interest of everyone involved—not just the shareholders but also our employees, and that was a large part of my job as the human resources executive.

When we came out of the meeting, I remember walking down the hallway only to hear a disgruntled employee whisper under their breath, “What were y’all doing in there? Trying to find another way to screw us?”

It really cut close to my heart, because at the end of the day, when we assume positive intent, we remember that no matter your title, leaders are just human beings doing the best they can.

5. Understand What You Want

You have to be clear about what you want when managing upward. Not just about what you want to accomplish but what you want from a career perspective. What are your intentions for implementing these tactics? How does investing your time in this relationship get you the results you seek?

Managing upward isn’t just about getting work done. Managing upward is about creating that strong personal relationship, so when they think about filling the next promotional opportunity in the organization, they think about you. But you must tell them what you want and your visibility and relationship with them will keep you at the forefront of their minds.

As an HR professional, I had too many employees who weren’t clear about what they wanted. They simply asked me, “What should I do next?” Of course we would brainstorm about what they wanted, but it always ultimately comes down to your life interests. 

What type of lifestyle are you going to create for yourself, and what matters most to you? If your leaders don’t know this information, they can’t think of you, they can’t champion you, and they can’t promote you. So make sure you’re taking advantage of every opportunity to communicate what you’re interested in. 

And remember, managing upward is not a game, it’s a strategic leadership skill. A skill when honed that will enable success in your current role and set the foundation for success in your future. 

Happy designing!