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Top five tips for managing upwards

Managing upwards picture of a man sat to the side holding a mobile phone.

When I consider it carefully, most of my individual clients work with me as they are having challenges with others in the workplace. Whether that be being promoted, struggling to work with a ‘difficult’ colleague, managing a team or improving how they are perceived at work, amongst many other possibilities.

People are often surprised how much of their time is spent on managing others. They often say things like “then I have my job to do on top”. What is important to recognise is that managing others is an essential part of most roles, as you get more senior.

If you can build your skills in terms of managing both upwards and downwards, your working life will be far easier and more enjoyable.

In this article, I want to share my top five tips for managing upwards.

You may or may not like your direct boss/line manager(s)/whatever your company or firm calls them. Either way, they are a key relationship to focus on, as you are likely to need to work closely together and they are likely to both influence the day-to-day work you have and your future prospects – the interdependency will be much more positive if you work on the relationship(s).  My top tips for managing upwards are:

1.     Context – were they involved in selecting you for the role? Are they newer to your company/firm than you? What is their background? How could these kinds of elements impact them and you? I know a contact of mine had to consider carefully how she built up the relationship with her new boss who had arrived during her maternity leave, especially as they had both formed perceptions of one another from others in the team!


2.     Style – get to know and think about what sort of person they are. Are they a concise or more long-winded person? Are they relational focused or task focused? Are they an introvert or extrovert?  Surrounded by Idiots is worth a read to think more about these last two questions. What could their style mean for how you engage with them? It’s not about completely changing yourself but modifying how you engage with them, where you can, to increase the chance of positive engagement and achieving the desired outcome of the interaction.


3.     Communication timing & method – make sure you have a clear way of communicating. Establish regular meetings and agree how ad hoc matters will be dealt with. Some people like to be asked questions as they come up, for others this is interruptive so work out what suits you both best and what is necessary for the type of work you do. Also consider how this happens – instant message, phone, email, or meeting. This is particularly important in a hybrid working world.


4.     What to involve them in & the appropriate level of detail – consider carefully what you need to involve your boss or line manager in. Most good managers will step back somewhat once they understand your capabilities and trust you (which can take some time), others may want more involvement, others less. This can depend on individual personalities but also the context. You may be able to judge what to involve them in or may need to have a more open conversation. Also, consider the level of detail to share. What do they really need to know? Whilst it can be important, they sometimes know the detail, most of the time it is unnecessary. Being too in the detail is one of the reasons people don’t get promoted – either as you are perceived as someone that can’t think of the bigger picture and/or you would be too much of a loss to your current role.


5.     Respectful disagreement – it is important to speak up when you have a different view to your boss/line manager. It is all about the how. This will depend on the relationship and/or the situation. You will need to think carefully about how you offer your differing point of view and make sure you consider why they may have an alternative view and listen carefully to the response. Many people are afraid to disagree with their boss but increased seniority doesn’t always mean they are always correct. There is a company I have worked with for a couple of years and one of the bosses there is constantly saying he wished he had more challenge from certain members of his team. Some people will find challenge difficult but if done in the right way, it often ensures better decision making and performance.

 Working with others is challenging and managing upwards can feel particularly hard as you feel you don’t have the positional power. As a side note, you can read about different types of power in this article.

Bosses can be challenging and many people leave a boss not a company, but if you invest time in building the relationship and managing upwards effectively that will pay dividends. If you can make your boss feel valued, understood and helped to do their role well, it is likely to have benefits for your working life.

 “I initially signed up for seven online sessions with Joanna and when they were finished I signed up for a further four in order to learn how better to manage my workplace relationships. As a result, my work situation improved and this meant that I was no longer being threatened with a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’.”

Senior Risk and Compliance Officer

If you’d like to talk to me about any challenges you have managing upwards, contact me.

To read more about the skills you need to progress your career, request my Nine Skills needed for career success below: