The Struggle and Satisfaction from Managing Up

Developing a “Managing Up” relationship with your supervisor takes some unique skills, with its own struggles and satisfactions. Read more about what managing up looks and sounds like, and how you can practice these skills.

Readers of the blog were recently asked to recommend topics to explore. This topic is from Sarah, who asked to read more about how to manage up and manage across. Thank you Sarah, and I hope this post gives some insight to you and others! This is the second in a two-part series. The second part identifies the role of trust in a supervisory relationship, and what managing up can look and sound like with your supervisor.

Spending time reflecting on my positive working relationships with my former supervisors has been wonderful. I learned a great deal about what my strengths were and what I would do differently when I began supervising staff. In my previous post, I wrote about what my managing-up relationship looked like with each former supervisor and what I learned from each that was worth noting. In this blog entry, I plan to highlight how to cultivate this relationship with a supervisor. I will also address the importance of building trust.

Note to Self: You Are Not Alone

When I began working for one of my supervisors, Donna, she made it very clear what expectations she had. One of them was, “Remember, the only surprises should involve cake and ice cream.” She reminded me about this recently when I wrote how I was going to speak about our relationship for this blog.

According to Donna, the only surprises at work should involve cake and ice cream. After a years in the field, I have to agree with her on this!

I think this phrase highlights the challenges of working in a managing-up relationship. I wrote about how it was important to develop trust with a supervisor. As the work begins to increase and the stakes get higher, it became more important to make sure every stakeholder was kept aware of changes and difficulties.

Donna helped me understand that I was never alone in my work and more importantly, she would always help me look for solutions. But what she disliked the most were surprises, so a solution that was a surprise would have most certainly involved a separate conversation. I know now that sharing what is really happening rather than painting a picture of perfection made for the best relationships.

The Struggle is Real

In nearly 20 years of working in higher education, I have worked for 16 different supervisors. Some of these relations were positive, others not so much. I have tried building trusting relationships with each of them to mixed results.

I’ve had working relationships where the trust was lost, and yet I stayed anyway. I often wonder what my career would have looked like had I left when the trust was gone.

I have to acknowledge that trying to ‘get there’ with each supervisor doesn’t work out. In some cases, it was a lack of trust on the part of my supervisor. In others, it was a lack of trust on my behalf. With those cases, it was important to follow through on the formal relationship we had and document the times when the relationship failed. And above all, it was time to think about moving on.

Tips for Managing Up

It would be a challenge to start managing up, if you approach the relationship without understanding how to maximize the time you have with your supervisor. Consider the tips offered by Jessica Howington at

  • Work Towards a Mutual Goal: Anyone who wants to be a leader has to understand the importance of the operation. When you and your boss work towards a mutual benefit, you are showing you are capable of being part of a team.
  • Exceed Expectations: Set expectations and then blow them out of the water. When you exceed expectations, you show that you are capable of doing more.
  • Know Your Boss: Get to know your boss and their management style. The more you are able to understand your boss, the better you will be able to work with them.
  • Jump In: If the opportunity arises for you to offer help or a solution, do so. Showing initiative and willingness to take on a challenge are good qualities to have.
  • See the Big Picture: Leadership roles look at the big picture, not just the here and now. Get involved and get interested in things outside of your role.
  • Keep Your Boss Informed: Keeping your boss in the loop on your work or project progress is important. Equally so is the desire to learn new tasks and move into a higher-level job.
  • Be Proactive: Being proactive shows that you can take initiative and shows that you have the ability to manage those under your level.

These might seem like no-brainers. But in a traditional office environment, you may not be required to see the big picture or act proactively. If you have the opportunity to manage up, look at what you may need to do differently when approaching the supervisor relationship.

What Managing Up Sounds Like

Its not enough to know what you can do with your supervisor. As a first gen professional, I struggled with how to articulate what I wanted and needed. Thankfully, the Management Center offers tips on how to initiate the conversation with your supervisor based on what you need.

For instance if your manager frequently cancels meetings with you, you could:

  • Say, “I know you’re really busy – but can I talk to your assistant and get 10 minutes on your calendar?”
  • Consider asking to move your check-in to a time they are less likely to cancel.

Or if your manager gives you more and more work when your plate is already full, you could:

  • Say, “I want to make sure I’m prioritizing correctly. Here are my thoughts on what I should work on now and what will be on the back burner.”

When developing your script on how to introduce a manage-up relationship, it might be helpful to practice what your requests sound like.

If you are starting a new supervisor relationship, or trying to improve the one you currently have, take a look at the list from the Management Center. I found it incredibly helpful. The list reflected some of the ways I gave feedback to supervisors to improve our work 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. 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.

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