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“Managing Up”: How to Manage Your Manager

admin March 22, 2024
This article is targeted at individuals working remotely in agile organizations and agile teams, mid managers aiming to cultivate trust, alignment and autonomy

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Does your manager trust that you are really working?
Do you trust your manager?

I will admit, I (still) have trust issues. After seven amazing years at a global engineering company, I found myself leaving because I did not fully trust my manager. It took me years of reflection to realize that I had too high expectations of her. I expected her to be perfect – to motivate me, to give me regular feedback and to even manage my career. Besides, I failed to communicate with my manager about my needs or aspirations at work. Because I did not take responsibility for these things myself, I chose the easy way out – and left the company.

It took me another seven years to write this article and to look back with gratitude at my early managers (including her). If you too, recognize yourself in this story, I encourage you to read further, as we will explore how to “manage up” – i.e. cultivate a healthy trust-based relationship with your manager. So that if you do end up leaving your job, you leave for the right reasons. And perhaps you will stay and make your job better.

What does it mean to “manage up”?

First of all, let’s look at definitions.

Most organizations, no matter how much they have advanced on the self-managing spectrum, do have some form of structure which is defined by the decision-making authority distribution of various players. If this structure is a hierarchy, then “managing up” is defined as cultivating a trusting relationship upwards towards your supervisor(s) in the hierarchy.

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If the structure of your organization is a self-managing network (e.g. holacracy, teal or similar) and there are no formal manager roles, then “managing up” is defined as cultivating trusting relationships and managing expectations on the boundaries of your decision making authority. This definition is inspired by the work of Daniel Mezick detailed in his book Inviting Leadership.

Managing up is especially relevant for self-organizing teams (squads or tribes) in agile organizations and for their mid managers (or chapter leads) – in order to cultivate an environment of empowered initiative and clarity. When working remotely, the boundaries of these self-organizing teams (including mission, goals, success metrics, authority rights) need to be regularly clarified, re-adjusted and re-aligned with the stakeholders of the team and communication needs to be planned more consciously.

#1 Tip to Manage your Boss: Communicate intent and measures of success

Before we can focus on your autonomy about how you work, it is important to ensure that we are working towards a clear outcome with defined success metrics – and we have defined these in alignment with our manager(s) intent.

In military organizations, they call this practice the Commander’s Intent – and it is about having clarity about the goals of the organization, of teams and individuals. This is essential so that decentralized decision-making and local action can happen without any delays. I often show the award winning navy captain David Marquet’s video on my trainings, which tells the story of managing by intent. Rather than only expecting managers (“from the top”) to communicate their intent, we should also “manage up” by communicating our intent to our managers and colleagues.

#2 Tip to “Manage Up”: Agree on how you will make decisions

Another way to gain more autonomy and speed for yourself and your team is to look at how decisions-making is distributed between you and your manager. Gaining real clarity on what decisions you have full authority to take without needing to consult or to wait for your manager is a great start. However, in my experience, most decisions are not delegated or not – but require a much more complex process of consulting and aligning experts, stakeholders, and contributors.

#3 Tip to Manage your Boss: Own your Competency and Learning Plan

This is a key area of “managing up” so as to ensure that you and your team have the right plan and resources (time, money) in place to support continuous learning. Besides, learning is not only valuable but it is also motivating and energizing. With the Team Competency Matrix, your team can visualize the continuous learning plan together with team members and learning sponsors (HR, Learning and Development, managers). Unlike traditional HR processes for yearly learning plan development, you can use the competency matrix continuously and keep it up to date as your team’s and individual objectives evolve.

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#4 Way for “Managing Up”: Give and ask for feedback

I am a big believer in regular, timely feedback to improve our relationships. It is a pity that most of us when we hear the word “feedback”, we hunch our back and think – “oh, how can I avoid it”. However, feedback often is much richer – neither negative nor positive – it is best described as a very specific observation of an action/situation by another person and their very subjective reactions and emotions attached to it. Most people exchange feedback because they care about the other person and the collective desired outcomes. 

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