When we talk about management, we often think about the person leading a team. Someone who has to delegate downwards. If you are a manager yourself, you probably have to manage up as well; unless you are on top of the food chain of course. So, how do you manage your manager?

Some years ago I worked for a large international organisation and was often called into the large office of my manager. He would brief me on something quite general like “Could you please, if you have time, have a look at this?” I quickly learned – through some awkward conversations that followed - that even though it seemed like a soft invitation, it did not actually matter whether I had time: I had to make time for it, and preferably, before the end of the day. He was the boss after all….

As a Dutch person who is not used to hierarchy, it often left me frustrated and I missed my sense of autonomy to decide how I organised my work. He wanted to receive the information in person and not in writing. Meanwhile, I thought it to be easier to write a detailed email.

Already decades ago, Kotter and Gabarro (both from Harvard) offered a useful lens to look at the boss-manager relationship and presented a checklist, which has been very useful to me when struggling to manage upwards.


1. Understand your boss and the context in which (s)he is operating

It might seem obvious, but it is important to look at the context in which your boss is operating. Do you know what his/her vision is and the goals (s)he has set for the organisation? Remember your boss is also only human; just like you have off-days, your manager has them too! Understanding my manager’s working style helped me to understand that my boss valued personal contact and was overwhelmed by all the emails he received: sending him an email would just add to his frustration.


2. Understand your own style and needs

Why did I prefer sending emails detailing my findings instead of sharing them in person with my manager? For me, it gave me structure and something tangible to refer back to later on. Furthermore, the personal visits to the big office intimidated me and meant I often lost track of the key points I needed to share. It is important to reflect on your own working style and the strengths and weaknesses in relation to that. In the Leadership and People Management course, we use the DISC profile as a helpful tool to map this out.


3. Develop and maintain a relationship with your boss

When you grasp the style of your manager better, and you understand your own needs too, this can serve as a basis to develop a common way of working. It is important to express mutual expectations and jointly agree on how you’re going to work together effectively. In my case, it meant I needed to prepare better for my visits to the big office, and ask questions to find out more concretely what was required of me. At the same time, for my own peace of mind, I could still put it all in writing, print it (sorry planet!) and give it to him in person. But…only if it was very important because all managers out there will agree with me: there is never enough time, so don’t waste it.

Would you like to know more about different leadership styles and how you can use them? Follow our Leadership and People Management course. Or get in touch with Lisa Freiburg, trainer of this course and writer of this blog.