I once had a supervisor who micromanaged me, and I hated it. I could have just complained to all my friends. I could have told him off. I could have just quit without saying anything. What I chose to do instead paved the way for a valuable tenure at this company that was pivotal to the success of my career long term.
My supervisor was the CEO of the company, and I was the Director of Human Resources. One of my responsibilities was to go out into the field and work with employees. Often this involved visiting our various locations in the morning to conduct trainings, then I would head into the office a little later than my normal start time.
Even though he knew my schedule, I would arrive at my desk to nasty voicemails — all but shouting at me — questioning me about my whereabouts and saying he didn’t really know where I was. For obvious reasons, this was uncomfortable. I really did not like starting my morning this way. I decided I needed to manage up.
One day, I went into his office and asked him, “Do you trust me?”
His response was, “I don’t know.”
Right then, it would have been easy to get defensive and lash out. How could he not trust me? He chose me as his Director of Human Resources. This role gave me access to over 600 social security numbers, phone numbers, addresses, and pay rates. He had even made me an authorized check signer for all checks in the company. I was frustrated.
Instead of throwing that in his face, I looked for a solution. I said, “We have to figure this out. What do you need from me in order to build that trust?”
I didn’t know if I was going to have a job at the end of this conversation, but here’s the incredible thing that happened: he told me what he specifically needed. He needed me to call him once in the morning and again at the end of the day to check in and let him know what I was doing. Did I love that? No, but I really enjoyed working at that company so I did exactly what he asked.
And you know what happened? He started to trust me more. Once he saw that I did what he asked me to do consistently, he started to trust me so much to the point that he was taking me to meetings that were outside the scope of my role in developing his business and getting new clients. I started to move up to be his second in command only because he trusted me so much. And all because I took the time to have an uncomfortable conversation and manage up.
What is Managing Up?
Simply put, managing up is managing your supervisor – whether that’s a manager or a board of directors.
It’s not about control or manipulation. It is recognizing your responsibility in creating a healthy relationship with your supervisor and taking the necessary steps to build that healthy relationship. This involves you taking the initiative to address a conflict, asking for feedback necessary to perform your job, and learning how you can best support your supervisor in achieving their goals.
A common barrier to managing up is the fear of approaching your “boss.” Due to bad movies or bad past experiences, the term “boss” can send a signal to your brain that could lead you to perceive a power struggle before you even open the door to a discussion. Words are powerful. Remove this barrier to managing up by reframing the language you use to describe the role. Try “supervisor” instead. A “supervisor” oversees and provides direction. This is just one step in helping you have a more confident, productive managing up conversation.
How to Manage Up Successfully
Managing up is crucial to being successful in the workplace. Whether you’re the CEO or an entry level employee, managing up is a valuable skill to have.
The story I’ve shared isn’t the only time I’ve managed up. Over the years of having these conversations, I’ve developed three essential tips for successfully managing up.
1. Make sure you aren’t part of the problem
Do you feel like you’re being micromanaged? Like the CEO is singling you out? Like you can’t do anything right?
Before you go too far down that road, take time for self-evaluation and self-awareness.
Objectively measure your output with the agreed upon expectations of your role. Are you meeting expectations?
Review your communications. Are you attentive, clear and responding with the appropriate information and within an appropriate time period?
Check your actions. Are there any changes you could make to improve the situation?
Managing up will only be successful if you’re aware of your own performance and have done your part to remedy any issues before you approach your supervisor.
2. Use questions not accusations
After a presentation where I shared my managing up story, an attendee approached me after and expressed frustration. He explained that he had tried my approach, and it didn’t work. But the more I learned about his attempt at managing up, the more I realized his approach wasn’t like mine at all. His conversation with his supervisor involved a lot of finger pointing and accusations that didn’t lead anywhere productive. This was no surprise to me. Anger and accusations can never solve an issue.
Productive conversations that result in mutually beneficial outcomes involve open dialogue. When having a managing up conversation, use questions to dig deeper and learn more about why your supervisor is managing you that way. Ask questions that demonstrate your motivation to find a solution together.
Then, listen and resist the urge to get defensive. The only way to achieve your goal is to hear what your supervisor has to say.
3. Have no expectations for the outcome
When I walked into my supervisor’s office that day, I had no idea which direction the conversation would go. Thankfully, he was receptive, but he could have also just as easily fired me.
Just like managing up is not a time for accusations, it’s also not a time to make demands. Remember, managing up is about building a healthy relationship with your supervisor in order to perform your job best.
To manage up successfully, you must leave all expectations at the door and enter instead with an open mind that’s ready for open dialogue. You’re there to learn how you can support your supervisor and grow in your position.
I think about the conversation I had with my supervisor that day often. I’m grateful that I took the initiative to find a solution instead of letting the issue go unresolved.
Don’t waste time and energy being frustrated. Take the initiative and start managing up.