We can integrate a “manage up” working relationship with our supervisor when we start asking these four questions.
Last week, I spoke with a graduate student who is enrolled in the same master’s degree program I completed over 20 years ago, as part of a mentor/mentee program I joined. We chat once a month and discuss challenges he is facing and how to prepare for upcoming job searches. We landed on one issue early in our discussion that helped focus this week’s post.
He discussed how his current supervisor, whom he likes working for, doesn’t communicate deadlines or expectations clearly. This reminded me of my own time as a new professional and I quickly turned our chat into a professional development moment. Among the strategies we discussed, we talked about using a ‘managing up’ method. I’ve written about how to manage up in previous posts, which will help new readers learn about the concept.
But when talking to a new staff member or a graduate student, it may be easier to prep them with questions to ask a supervisor. Below are the four sets of questions I have found most useful when starting a managing up the relationship in the office.
Four Questions to Manage Up
When considering a managing up relationship in the workplace, it is important to ask yourself a series of questions. It is also critical to ask your supervisor one or more of them, as well. These questions can be asked when you start a new job, during an interview, or after you have held the position for a length of time.
Ask yourself: What is success for them personally? What is success for my manager’s team?
I learned from one of my supervisors that perfection was the standard of success. Not just being right or on-time. But perfection. And for the first few months working together, that was not my measure of success. After discussing this topic with him and chewing on how I felt about it, it was easier to deliver projects that not only met his approval but also showed he could trust me to do work in his absence.
Ask your supervisor: Here are my top X priorities. Do these align with your priorities?
I have personally used a variation of this question with multiple supervisors over the years. It usually pops up when my plate is filled with projects that were given to me but weren’t my primary job. In order to be flexible in the ambiguity, I wanted to demonstrate that I could complete all the tasks but I always needed the supervisor’s input into what was the most important given their current work. In this way, projects shuffled or put into a backburner were mutually agreed upon and I was still advancing the most important work.
Before you approach your superivsor, ask yourself what your life is like and what are your competing priorities. Then ask how to find balance between the two areas.
Ask yourself about their communication and listening style: Do they seem to prefer talking in person or over email? Do they make decisions based more on data or hunches?
One supervisor I had, before meeting me, never wanted to know the data – she was influenced by her gut. Another supervisor only wanted to know the data. A recent supervisor sent countless emails every day checking up on projects. While I have a personal style when I supervise others, I am reminded that I need to know my supervisor’s preferred style. Do I send an email? Can I stop in for a quick chat? Should I create a chart or graph with the data? Or should I integrate the data into a narrative? All of these tips helped me with each supervisor.
Ask Your supervisor: “If I need help with something, what’s the best way to get your input or support on something?”
This sometimes feels like a no-brainer question. My experience says otherwise. We need to ask this question clearly and, if necessary, more than once. Some people want hands-on instruction. Others want to try and fail to learn on their own. I prefer to mimic an approach so it becomes my own, with little input from a supervisor. But I want this input as clear as possible.
Some supervisors may not deliver the instruction you desire. Ask yourself, “Is this a deal-breaker?” If not, wonderful! If yes, make sure you ask this question early in your new job search.
The Struggle is Real, Still
As I have shared before, managing up relationships – really, all relationships – must begin with a foundation of trust. Without trust, no relationship can persist or grow. I have been lucky to have worked with amazing supervisors who challenged me to grow. Some supervisors, well, didn’t. Taking advantage of this trust allowed me to practice skills that benefited the organization and me.
It is worth noting that, even with an understanding of how to manage up, not all relationships will garner a level of trust that benefits you and the organization. It is important to know and understand when you are expected to manage up to move along projects and initiatives, versus when you are being exploited. And even those of us who know the difference can still find ourselves exploited or taken advantage of.
We should learn how to identify the ways we could be exploited when we do some (or all) of the work our managers should be doing.
Not all people believe managing up benefits everyone. Carley Childress, in The 3 potential pitfalls of managing up, believes “When left unchecked, managing up can actually hurt employee morale, reduce team engagement, create discord, and ultimately, hurt the bottom line.” I found that my coworkers turned to me to help them make decisions when our manager stepped back and then eventually left. Knowing this was not the job I wanted, I had to make a decision – stay and lead or leave and find a job that matched my interests.
I encourage all considering a managing up relationship to review how reciprocal the relationship will be with their boss and coworkers. Find a middle ground that works for you and others. And review how the relationship has or will impact the team as you grow together.
Want to Explore This Topic Further?
I have worked with entry-level and mid-level career professionals for nearly ten years, helping them reconsider their strengths and ways to learn new skills to manage up. Let me know if there is anything I can do to support you as you develop this new skill.
Schedule an introductory meeting so we can discuss a plan that works best for you.