How to manage up effectively

Originally posted Jan 28, 2020 • More resources on communication & team dynamics

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In the last post, I walked through:

Check it out if you haven’t already—it’ll be helpful context before you read the rest of this post!

Below, I cover the information you need to gather before you can effectively manage up. Then, we’ll use that info to get your manager to give you what you need. Enjoy!


Data-gather first, manage up second.

Jill Wetzler emphasizes doing this here:

“Once I get people to have a convo with their manager to understand what their manager’s motivations, priorities, and responsibilities are, it becomes a lot easier for them to ask to be managed in a particular way. It also usually leads to more efficiency in the relationship.”

This information—how your manager thinks about their responsibilities and priorities, as well as what’s weighing on their mind—will help with everything that comes later.

How does your manager perceive their role?

We all know that management roles vary widely across organizations, often depending upon the size of the company and how the teams are structured. What you think your manager should be doing all day might not match what your manager thinks, or what the company thinks.

So! Ask your manager about how they perceive their role.

I once said to my manager, “Hey, I was wondering if we could talk through how you see the role of a manager at this company. It occurred to me that every company, or even every team, might define this differently. How do you think about it? What parts of it do you enjoy the most?” The resulting conversation was illuminating: how he perceived the role of a manager and how I perceived it GREATLY differed. It reset my expectations of what to lean on him for, what to push for, and where to look elsewhere for some of the things I needed.

Yes, their answer can be frustrating, ESPECIALLY if you are currently feeling disappointed in them. But save changing their mind for another day; for now, we’re prioritizing getting you the help that you need.

What’s weighing on your manager’s mind?

Next, figure out what topic is top-of-mind for your manager right now. It might be surprising:

  1. Actively listen to your manager, to see what they are most focused on at the moment. Is there a big thing that’s worrying them? What project do they keep talking about? Is there a deadline or OKR that seems to always be on their mind?
  2. Ask what they’re most focused on, worried about, or taking up a lot of their brain space at the moment, if it feels comfortable to do so. Remember that their words and their behavior may not match; we often think we’re focused on one thing, but really there’s something underneath it that’s nagging us.

These two pieces of information: how they perceive their role, and what they care about most right now, will help you when you ask them for help next.

How do I get help from my manager?

This was the #1 theme in the questions I received on Twitter. Whether you need help with getting more headcount, understanding the company strategy, pushing back on deadlines, mentorship, feedback, you name it: you sometimes need to ask for your manager’s help.

Of course, it’s not ALWAYS as simple as just… asking. But frankly, lots of people skip this step, because it can be scary! So, here’s some advice:

1. Be specific with your request.

Figure out if what you want from your manager is mentoring, sponsoring, feedback, headcount, a new strategy, etc. Get really specific with what it is you’re hoping they do. Reflect on how your manager defines their own role—does their self-defined list of responsibilities match what you’re asking for now? If so, awesome: go ahead and ask.

Being specific will help you make sure you get what you actually need, and avoid the slow dance of your manager trying to infer it. Maybe you want advice, or more responsibility, or more autonomy, or a space to vent.

If they didn‘t name this thing you’re asking for in their description of their role, you can ask for their help anyway. Part of iterating on and improving your relationship with your manager is articulating what it is that you need, and seeing if they can provide it.

But remember: managers can’t be all things to all people. Maybe they should give you this kind of help, but can’t, or won’t. It happens. This is why building a Voltron crew of support is so important!

2. If they say no, try reframing your request.

Let’s look again at Jill Wetzler’s story of a direct report who made the case for more headcount. His vision doc included:

That direct report had figured out what things the decision-makers cared about, and proactively framed the request in those terms

The most effective people I know are skilled at the art of reframing or translating something into topics that the other person cares about. This is true when it comes to giving feedback, and it’s also true when it comes to influencing people with power.

As Jason Wong shared in another example of effective managing-up:

“[One thing that’s worked on me is] framing concerns in the language and issues I care about/have prioritized. If I’m pushing for an overhaul and you propose tinkering, that’s not going to go well. If you tell me how your idea gets me my desired outcome, now we’re talking.”

Sometimes I get pushback when I talk about this reframing skill. Isn’t it manipulative?

I mean, yes, it can be used in a manipulative way! But, frankly, humans are fairly straightforward. We are focused on the thing that’s currently top of mind for us. We have core needs at work that we’re trying to address. It’s WAY easier to frame your request in terms of the thing that’s already top-of-mind for your manager, than it is to try to make a case for them to care about something new.

So: how do we do this, if our manager has already said no, or given a noncommittal answer?

Reflect back what you’re hearing or sensing them care about, and pair it with your reframed request. For example, “I get the sense that our ability to tackle this Q4 roadmap is on your mind. I know we’ve talked about headcount before, but I think it’d be helpful to revisit it for this. If we hired 2 more folks in the next six weeks—which, looking at our mean time to hire, is doable—we can tackle this extra priority from the CEO in Q4. I can do it; I just need your help getting the headcount approved.”

This, of course, won’t always work. Sometimes, you might need to articulate additional risks, too. Sometimes, you might need to find someone else who has the power to help you (remember, your manager can’t be your everything! Again, you need to build a Voltron).

But when this works, it’s the most speedy way to get your manager to help. This approach helps it feel less like you’re just bringing up the same request over and over again (you are! But you’re also indicating that, after some critical thought, you believe it’s the best solution to multiple problems—including the one your manager cares about right now). And at the end of the day, we all just want our problems solved.

(One more thing! if you want more practice honing really effective feedback to give to your manager, come to one of my workshops.)

How do I get my manager to follow through?

“If they’ve agreed to do something, how can I make sure they do that thing? There will be very little consequence for them, they hold all the power, but I want them to do the thing.”—@varjmes

You’re absolutely right. They hold all the power. This is why knowing what they care about, and knowing what their priorities are, is the biggest tool you have in your pocket to motivating them to actually do the thing.

If they don’t follow through, how does that affect the topic that they care about?

If you don’t have a clear answer to this question—or your manager hasn’t already connected these dots out loud—you can ask them. Use a genuinely curious, open-ended question. “Okay, so if this doesn’t happen next week… what’s going to be the impact on That Deadline, you think?”

Hopefully, this genuinely curious and authentically open question will prompt a little lightbulb moment for your manager, and they’ll feel way more motivated to follow through. For what it’s worth, asking an open question like this has a significantly higher chance of success than you informing your manager of the potential costs. We are generally much more motivated to take action when we have connected the dots ourselves.

There is so much more to cover on managing up: how to gain shared expectations of you and your role, how to deal with a potential blowback from managing up, how to get your manager to communicate accurately on behalf of your team—the list goes on! I’ll try to cover these topics (and more!) in newsletters to come; subscribe if you haven’t already.

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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