Managing Up: Co-creating a Partnership with your Manager

When it comes to “managing,” many of us think of a one-way relationship between a manager and their direct reports. Additionally, the manager provides direction, delegates, supervises, and guides while the individual contributor executes. I’d like to invite you to challenge this concept, in which one plays an active role (the manager) while the other plays the passive one. How can we, as individual contributors, proactively shape how we collaborate with our leaders? It’s time to recognize the power we hold in this dynamic and leverage it to create true collaboration. In this article, we’ll explore why we tend to give away our power, how to break the taboo around asking questions, and provide actionable steps to successfully manage up.

True Partnership between a manager and their direct report changes the game. New ways of looking at problems emerge, relationships deepen, and mutual benefits arise for the organization.

The Power Dilemma: Why Do We Give Away Our Power to Titles?

Many of us unwittingly give away our power to titles, assuming that our managers are solely responsible for steering the ship. Without realizing it, we make ourselves smaller than we are for several reasons:

  • Lack of awareness: We might not realize that we have power in the first place.
  • Wrong expectations: We may expect our managers to always guide us, underestimating our ability to contribute proactively.
  • Past experiences: Negative relationships with previous managers may make us hesitant to take the initiative.

By succumbing to these factors, we not only limit our own potential but also deprive our teams and organizations of valuable insights and contributions.

Generally, when you manage up successfully, on the other hand, you are creating a true partnership between you and your leader. Based on how new you are in your role, the purpose of this partnership changes. In the very beginning, you will rely on your manager as someone you learn from and who can guide you. As you grow, however, your manager’s role becomes more about removing roadblocks and creating opportunities for you. You learn how to lean into your leader for your own development and as a sounding board. This is when true collaboration happens.


Cultivating your own Self-Awareness

The first building block in successfully managing up starts with yourself. As is true for any relationship, the better you know yourself, the likelier you are to create an authentic bond with the other person. Get clear about your working preferences by thinking about the following:

  • What environment helps me be laser-focused?

  • How do I best absorb information (written, verbal, visual, etc.)?

  • What helps me move through setbacks and learn from mistakes?

  • What are my main drivers? What motivates me to be in this job?


Breaking the Taboo: The Power of Asking Questions

Consider asking good questions the second building block to a mature, rewarding relationship with your manager. There is a common misconception about asking questions, which is that asking will make us look incompetent. It is actually quite the contrary. Powerful questions can help gain much needed clarity not only for yourself but the other person and the whole team. It takes a deep level of understanding and listening (to what is said and what is between the lines) to ask intelligent questions that move the conversation in the right direction. Asking questions is a powerful way to step out of the passive and into the active and make your voice heard. It also alleviates your manager’s burden of having to ensure they got their message across. If they know you are a critical thinker, they can rely on you as a true thought partner. Examples of powerful questions are:

  • “Why are we targeting this deadline vs. a later/earlier date?”
  • “What is the most important thing I should be working on right now to help our team move the needle?”
  • “How does our team goal tie into the overall company strategy for 2024?”
  • “The Customer is asking us to do xyz. Is there a way we can integrate this to our workstream, to make our process more efficient?”

Successful Managing Up: A Blueprint for Action

Now that we have the two fundamental building blocks, let’s look at some actions you can start taking today to contribute to a positive and efficient working relationship with your leader. Here are some examples:

  • Decision Making: Present choices along with well-reasoned arguments instead of seeking approval. This not only demonstrates initiative but also fosters trust.

  • Regular Updates: Keep your manager informed about your progress, aligning with their preferred format, be it weekly 1:1s or written reports.

  • Clarity Ownership: If goals need to be clarified, take the initiative to seek clarity on your, your manager’s, and the team’s objectives.

  • Anticipate Needs: Proactively identify tasks aligned with team or company goals, making your manager’s life easier.

  • Feedback Loop: Actively provide constructive feedback, contributing to the team’s continuous improvement.

The Broader Benefits of Proactivity

Proactively shaping your relationship with your manager has additional benefits beyond the workplace. Cultivating self-awareness, understanding others’ needs, and seeking clarity are invaluable skills that can enhance any relationship in your life.  One of the critical activities of managing up is understanding how to best communicate with. your manager.  You’ll find some valuable tips in this Forbes article: Managing Upward: A Key Part Of Being A Really Useful Manager For Your People.

By embracing our power, breaking taboos around questions, and proactively shaping our relationships, we not only contribute to our professional growth but also foster environments where everyone can thrive. It’s time to redefine the dynamics of leadership and collaboration from both ends of the spectrum.

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