What Leaders Can Teach Their Employees About Managing Up

By Alexis Haselberger | Updated: 12 May, 2020

You’ve heard the term “managing up”, but what does it mean and, more importantly, why should you care?

Managing up means using your own agency to help others (often your manager) help you get what you need so you can do your job as effectively as possible. As leaders, we may or may not have someone we need to manage up to. But as a leader, managing up is an incredibly important skill that you can teach your employees. If your employees can manage up well, friction is reduced in the relationship and you both become more productive.

So, let’s get into the how. We often simply expect that our employees will already possess the skillset required to manage up well. But managing up isn’t something that’s taught in school! You can often fast-track the learning process with your employee by specifically outlining what you need from them in order for them to manage up to you well.

Here are some specific strategies that you can use to turn your employees into managing-up-experts in no time which will save you both time and frustration:

Tell Them About You, Your Goals and Role

Your employees know that you manage them, but do they know what else you do all day? You have a specific role in your organization that your employees might not fully understand. But understanding you and your position better is one of the first steps to learning to better manage up.

Think about it: when we are in a relationship with anyone (partners, kids, friends, etc.) it’s helpful to understand their motivations and where they are coming from. It’s no different for your employees and you. If they can understand you, your place in the organization, and your motivations, they’ll be better able to understand their own goals and role within the context of the larger organization.

How do your employees typically find this stuff out? Usually it’s by trial and error over time, often months. You know that one employee who’s worked for you for years and can anticipate your every question? They’ve gained this knowledge over time and we come to see them as trusted allies in the workplace. But you can fast track this process by simply having explicit conversations with your employees where you share information about yourself, your goals and your role within the organization.

Want a gold star? Take 10 minutes to create a personal “user manual” for yourself and share that with your employees. Download a template here. (Bonus: Ask your employees to fill this out for themselves so that you can know THEM better.)

Otherwise, ask yourself the following questions, and then share your answers with your employees:

  • What’s the best way to communicate with me?
  • What’s the best way to solve a problem with me?
  • What’s my preferred working environment?
  • What do I look like under stress?
  • What do people misunderstand about me?
  • What are my top work values?
  • How does our team/department fit into the larger organization?


Establish Communication Norms

There’s often a mismatch between how we want others to communicate with us, and how they actually do. Sometimes, without realizing it, we are expecting our employees to be mind-readers. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t. The best way I’ve found to get on the same page about communication is to actually have an explicit conversation with my team around communication norms.

Again, explicit communication fast-tracks the trial and error learning period. If you’ve ever felt annoyed when an employee wants to share status updates on their projects every single day, or felt frustrated when you had to reach out to ask for a status update, you’ll soon be able to understand the value of explicitly defining communication norms.

To start, here are some questions you can answer for yourself and then communicate with your employees.

  • How often do I want updates on projects?
    • Do I want regular status updates? On what frequency? Wait until 1:1s?
    • Or do I only want to know when they need help/if there is a problem?
  • What’s my preferred communication method? (Email? Slack? Zoom?)
  • What does “emergency” mean to me, and when/how should my employees get in touch if there is one?
  • If there is a problem, when should my employees ask me to get involved?


Teach Them How to Build Your Trust

One of the keys to managing up is building trust. When no trust exists, like it or not, most people have a tendency to micromanage. And no one likes working for a micromanager. (I know, you’re thinking “not me, I’m not a micromanager”, but it can happen to the best of us!.)

Sometimes the lack of trust occurs simply because it’s a new working relationship and trust hasn’t had a chance to be built yet, but other times it’s because we’ve come to experience certain people as unreliable.

When I’ve managed teams, I found again and again that the easiest way for me to gain trust in someone else is when they show me that they are unfailingly accountable. Accountability is, arguably, the most important characteristic of any successful employee (at least in my book). You may think accountability is an immutable trait, but it’s actually a skill that can be learned. And you can help your employees get there.

Accountability means, simply: doing what you say you’re going to do, by when you say you will.

So what can you do to help foster that in your employees? Help your employees agree to only realistic deadlines. Teach them to “under promise and over deliver”. Let your employees know that you’d much rather have them agree to a realistic, if slightly later, deadline than to agree to a deadline that’s unlikely to happen. Employees often want to tell you the earliest date possible (because they want to do a good job and being quick is part of that), but then it gets really stressful when the unexpected inevitably happens. Teach your employees to include buffer time in their calculations.

I’m always telling people that if they think they can get something done by Wednesday, suggest Friday instead. That way, if they get it done by Wednesday, they look AMAZING, and everyone is wowed. And if they get it done Friday (2 days late in their own heads), well, they were still accountable and everyone is still pleased.

How can you get your employees to agree to more realistic dates?

  1. Make sure you actually set expectations of timelines. (If you don’t talk about timelines people either think it’s super urgent and drop everything, or put it on the backburner since no deadline was discussed.)
  2. Throw out a date and ask “Does this timing work for you?”. This makes the process collaborative and is a signal to your employee that it’s ok to be honest and push back if the deadline is too soon.
  3. Make sure they know that accountability is more important than perceived speed.


Help Them Avoid Bottlenecks

I’ve got news for you. As a leader, sometimes YOU are the bottleneck for your employees. You’ve got a lot on your plate, so it’s understandable, but you still want to do what you can to help unblock your employees.

You know the drill. One of your employees pings you and asks for “5 minutes”. You know what’s coming next. You’re about to receive a deluge of info about a problem you are a few degrees removed from, and then you’ll be expected to help resolve it. What if your employees could do a little bit of that heavy lifting for you? They’re closer to the work anyway. Wouldn’t that be nice? Well, it’s totally possible, and there’s a framework that I’ve taught to everyone I’ve ever managed about how to present information in such a way that you get to a yes or a no much faster. I’ll teach it to you, so that you can teach it to your employees.

The next time one of your employees dumps a problem in your lap and asks “What do you think?” or “What should we do?”, teach them to come next time presenting their issue in the following way:

  1. A brief synopsis of the issue. Succinct context. Just a few sentences.
  2. A suggested resolution or path forward.
  3. An explanation of the rationale for the proposed solution including:
    1. Why this solution?
    2. What other options/paths were rejected? Why?
  4. Answers to any questions they think you might ask. (This is where understanding you comes in helpful.)
  5. Ask: Do you agree? Am I missing anything?

When your employees present issues to you in the framework above, they’ll get a quicker answer from you. They’ve done their homework, so you don’t need to dive deep to figure it all out yourself. Good for you. Good for them. Good for the bottom line.


Take Action!

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was taught how to manage up before they left college? Since that’s not the case, you’ve got to do a little extra work to help your employees get there. But any work you put into teaching your employees how to manage up will come back to you in time and frustration saved.

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