How to Manage Up

Tips to prove your value while making your boss’s work day better.

Do you set out to make your boss’ job easier? It could be by anticipating his or her needs or taking the initiative on certain tasks. Or maybe your boss isn’t the best at organizing or prioritizing, and you’ve found yourself essentially managing your manager in those areas.

Whether you realize it or not, what you’ve been doing is called “managing up.” And if you’re not already doing it, you should be.

“You and your boss want to be a team and do the best you can for your department and organization,” says Kelli Baxter, principal and co-founder of Naples-based business and management consulting firm Value Generation Partners. “Without good communication and really understanding what your boss needs and wants, you aren’t going to be able to perform at your optimum peak. It’s all about being successful in your role and being a go-to person.”

But if the concept of managing your boss sounds like a punchline straight out of The Office, read on for Baxter’s tips and advice on how to prove your value while making your boss’s work day a lot better.

Ask questions.

To successfully manage up, you need to be able to communicate well and authentically with your boss. Asking pertinent questions will help you better understand both your boss’ work style and his or her day-to-day needs.

“If my boss asks me to do something and I say, ‘OK, sure’ and then I don’t ask any questions, do I really know what they want done?” says Baxter. “It’s up to us to ask questions to better understand things and make sure we’re not making any assumptions. Managing up means stepping back and thinking for a second about what additional information you need and how you get it.”

Examine your own strengths and weaknesses.

If you don’t know what makes you tick (or get mad), how can you be expected to manage your boss’ idiosyncrasies?

“It’s about being very self-aware and aware of others, and about being very intentional about capitalizing on our strengths and managing our trigger points,” says Baxter. “If we know that we hate it when our boss comes back from a meeting and is angry, we have to find a coping mechanism to deal with that and help diffuse ourselves. Once we’re aware of our own strengths and triggers, we can be intentional about how we respond or react.”

Take the reins of the relationship.

If your boss hasn’t made much of an effort to get to know you, this is an opportunity to show some ambition.

“Say, ‘Can we go to lunch so we have the chance to learn more about each other?’” suggests Baxter. “In order for there to be good work done and satisfaction on both sides of the equation, there needs to be that foundational, good relationship. If we start building that relationship from the ground up, it’s easier for us to be able to ask questions and understand when is the right time to ask the questions.”

Anticipate and act—in the way your boss wants you to.

Once you’ve built that relationship, this should be easier to do, because you’ll have a better understanding of your boss’s preferences and personality.

“If you continue to anticipate your boss’ needs and provide them information before they even ask for it, I don’t think that’s going too far,” says Baxter. “I think that’s groovy: Wouldn’t we all love to have someone beside us working in lock step like that? But if your boss has a big ego, that may be crossing the line because the boss wants to take all the credit.”

Request feedback.

Your boss may not think to explain all the reasons you’re doing a great job. But this is helpful information you should have. “Start asking for feedback regularly, so your boss starts expecting that you’re going to ask for feedback,” says Baxter. “Then it becomes easier for them to give it to you. If we don’t know how we’re doing from our boss’ perspective, we don’t know.”

Once you get the feedback, act on it.

If your boss says a meeting went well due to some help you provided beforehand, ask if that should become a regular pre-meeting practice. “It’s just simple things like that to be thinking about,” says Baxter. “It’s about asking, ‘How can I support you and help you shine and do the best job you can?’”

Focus on fixes.

If problems or conflicts arise, don’t just complain about them to your boss.

“Nobody likes to have a problem brought to them and just laid in their lap,” says Baxter. Explore the root cause of the issue and brainstorm solutions either on your own or with a peer or mentor—before discussing your concerns with your boss.

“Start to formulate some options for resolution,” says Baxter. “Then you will become known as a problem-solver and a go-to person and really have influence for managing up, across and throughout the organization.”