In large, fast-paced, and complex organizations, senior leaders often have to contend with multiple priorities competing for their attention, as well as the need to provide strategic vision, alignment, and support to their direct reports. For senior employees reporting up to the executive team and responsible for high-impact initiatives, it is crucially important to apply organizational behavior best practices to bridge any gaps in working styles between them and those to whom they report. In particular, “managing up” is an effective tool to build trust with one’s superiors, as it helps to navigate any style differences and create a more positive working dynamic for both the employee as well as his or her boss.

Managing up refers to doing whatever you can to make your boss’s job easier by essentially managing your manager. As Harvard Business Review points out, managing up includes a combination of:

  • Communicating your priorities and seeking feedback
  • Being able to anticipate your boss’s needs
  • Understanding what makes your boss tick
  • Knowing the right way to discuss problems with your boss, and
  • Learning how to be a well-rounded source of help

However, some people tend to resist the concept of managing up. According to Mary Abbajay, author of “Managing Up: How to Move up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss”, the three reasons underlying this resistance are: ego, fixed perspectives and resistance to change.

  • Ego shows when we feel like our expectations of our manager don’t match the reality, and we proceed to take a hostile or stubborn stance to our situation - e.g. we may think “my boss should….”, “my boss needs to…”, etc. Our ego prevents us from owning some of the burden of management and proactively addressing management gaps, and instead we tend to get trapped in our own views, needs and wants.
  • Our fixed perspectives show when we start to accept the status quo, and stop believing that we are empowered to evolve our relationship with our manager.  This mode of thinking may prevent us from widening our viewpoints, sharing our perceptions and giving feedback, and proposing new approaches to improve the working relationship with our boss.
  • Resistance to change. Managing up requires us to adapt, and also not be afraid of stepping out of our comfort zone to take charge of what needs fixing. However, altering our behavior can be an intimidating prospect if we feel there is a risk of failure or think that our efforts will go unnoticed.

Many organizations from Fortune 500 companies to top-tier consulting firms celebrate the practice of managing up, and managing up does not only benefit your boss. When done right, it also becomes a rewarding and potentially career-advancing move for star employees. The following are some of the benefits that employees receive by managing up:

  1. Crystal clear communication with your manager

Managing up helps you find common ground with a manager who doesn't necessarily think the same way you do. By openly communicating with your manager, you will be more likely to build trust by enabling alignment of ideas and increased collaboration in finding better solutions to problems. Proactively setting a foundation of communication also showcases leadership ability, and may lead to opportunities to take on new projects that advance your career.

Matt Wallaert, Chief Behavioural Officer from Clover Health shared, “One of the essential parts of managing up is understanding what actually are your manager’s most urgent priorities, and then adjusting accordingly. If you’re at the top of the stack, over-communicate. If you’re not the most pressing thing right now, you have to learn to drop back and do really great work. That way, when you do become the top of the stack, it’s for the right reasons — and not because everything is on fire.”

2. A more efficient and effective work dynamic

Managing up gives you more ownership over your work, allowing you to be able to plan your own workload.  This will help to increase productivity, job satisfaction and engagement. Also, when you have a good relationship with your manager, there will be a shared foundation of trust and collaboration, so that any challenges are easier to navigate in the future. This will help to increase work performance and productivity.

“Managing up is about building a relationship with your manager where the two of you are partners in problem solving” says Betty Liao, Senior Director of Product Management at InVision. Some questions she recommends you ask yourself include:

  • What are the constraints you’re operating under, and how do you believe it should change?
  • What are your current unknowns? How are you planning to get more clarity?
  • How can your manager best support you?

3. A boost up the corporate ladder

When you manage up, you’re showing that you know your boss’s priorities and goals, and can adjust your communication style to put the work that you’re doing in the context of these priorities — or offer to take on additional responsibility that more directly helps address your boss’s goals. Your managers will hence be more likely to advocate for you as someone worthy of advancement when the time is right to progress beyond your current role.

Leadership coach Beth Armknecht Millar explained, “When you know his/her priorities, you are able to assist your manager in accomplishing his/her goals. You are demonstrating that you are dependable and can take initiative; two highly coveted traits managers look for in their employees. Also, the more you anticipate the needs and demonstrate your understanding of them, the more confidence and influence you will build with your manager.”

Abbajay also shares five key things you can do to start managing up:

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