Five ways to manage upwards positively

Flat young woman and man helping and growing together. Concept businessman and businesswoman characters relationship, extending a helping hand to colleague. Vector illustration.Most of our challenges at work come from needing to work with others, both internally and externally.

These challenges include being judged ready for promotion, struggling to work with a ‘difficult’ colleague, managing a team or improving how they are perceived at work, amongst many other possibilities.

I find people are often surprised how much of their time is spent on managing their relationships with others. They often say things like “then I have my job to do on top”. It’s essential to recognise is that managing a greater variety of relationships with others is an essential part of most roles, as you get more senior.

In terms of internal relationships, if you can build your skills in terms of managing both upwards and downwards, your working life will be far easier and more enjoyable.

In this article, I run through my top five tips for managing upwards.

You may or may not like your direct boss/line manager(s)/whatever your company or firm calls them. However, this is a key relationship to focus on, as you are likely to need to work closely together and they are likely to both influence the day-to-day work you do and your future prospects – the interdependency will be much more positive if you work on the relationship(s).  My top tips for managing upwards are:

  1. Context – were they involved in choosing you for the role? Have they joined your company/firm more recently than you? What is their background? How could these kinds of elements impact how you relate to one another? I know a contact of mine had to consider carefully how she built up the relationship with her new manager who had arrived during her maternity leave, especially as they had both formed perceptions of one another from others in the team!
  2. Style – make time to get to know them and think about what sort of person they are. Are they a concise or more long-winded person? Are they relational focused or task focused? Are they an introvert or extrovert? Surrounded by Idiots is worth a read to think more about these last two questions. What could their style mean for how you engage with them? It’s not about completely changing yourself but adapting how you engage with them, where you can, to increase the chance of positive engagement and achieving the desired outcome when you communicate.
  3. Communication timing & method – ensure you have a clear way of communicating. Set up regular meetings and agree how ad hoc matters will be dealt with. Some people like to discuss things as they come up, for others this is annoying, so work out what suits you both best and what is necessary for the type of work you do. Also consider how this happens – instant message, phone, email, or meeting. This is particularly important in a hybrid working world.
  4. What to involve them in & the appropriate level of detail – consider carefully what your boss or line manager needs to be involved in. Most good managers will step back somewhat once they understand your capabilities and trust you (which can take some time), others may want more involvement, others less. This can depend on individual personalities but also the context. You may be able to judge what to involve them in or may need to have a more open conversation. Also, consider the level of detail to give them. What do they really need to know? Whilst it can be important that they sometimes know the detail, most of the time it is unnecessary. Being too in the detail is one of the reasons people don’t get promoted – either as you are perceived as someone that can’t think of the bigger picture and/or you would be too much of a loss to your current role.
  5. Respectful disagreement – it is important to speak up when you have a different view to your boss/line manager. It is all about the how. This will depend on the relationship and/or the situation. You will need to think carefully about how you offer your differing point of view and make sure you consider why they may have an alternative view and listen carefully to the response. Many people are afraid to disagree with their boss, but increased seniority doesn’t always mean they are always correct. There is a company I have worked with for a couple of years and one of the bosses there is constantly saying he wished he had more challenge from certain members of his team. Some people will find challenge difficult but if done in the right way, it often ensures better decision making and performance.

Working with others is challenging and managing upwards can feel particularly hard as you feel you don’t have the positional power. As a side note, you can read about different types of power in this article.

Bosses can be challenging and many people leave a boss not a company, but if you invest time in building the relationship and managing upwards effectively that will pay off positively. If you can make your boss feel valued, understood and helped to do their role well, it is likely to have benefits for your working life.

“I initially signed up for seven online sessions with Joanna and when they were finished I signed up for a further four in order to learn how better to manage my workplace relationships. As a result, my work situation improved and this meant that I was no longer being threatened with a ‘Performance Improvement Plan’.”

Senior Risk and Compliance Officer

If you’d like to talk to me about any challenges you have managing upwards, send me an email.

To read more about the skills you need to make the most of your career and succeed in your role, click here. You will receive a short email series and a PDF with a page on each skill.

About the author

Joanna GaudoinJoanna Gaudoin, Inside Out Image specialises in helping ambitious professionals and their organisations improve performance and achieve their goals.

She does this by helping them master and strategically use the business skills of Personal Impact and Relationship Management. These skills are required for professional success.

Before establishing Inside Out Image, Joanna worked in marketing and consultancy in large corporates. She understands the business world and its challenges. She now helps organisations and individuals understand how to succeed in it.


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