Learn to Manage Up

9 minutes, 4 links


Updated August 7, 2023

Having a healthy relationship with your boss makes your job easier, but there will be times when the two of you aren’t on the same page. If your boss is overcommitted, overwhelmed, or even if they’re not the best in a certain area of expertise, you need to learn how to manage up in order to make the relationship work.

To start, you need to recognize the situation you’re dealing with. Perhaps you’re dealing with:

  • A boss that has been at the company for years while you’re just starting.

  • A boss that has just started while you’ve been with the company for a while.

  • A manager who is a know-it-all.

  • A manager that is new to the industry and may not know a lot.

  • An indecisive manager.

  • A manager that goes with their gut feeling instead of relying on data or the opinions of their team.

  • A first-time manager that is still learning.

caution Before we dig deeper into how you can manage up, you first need to understand what managing up does not mean:

  • Manipulating or deceiving your boss.

  • Covering up a mistake you made.

  • Hiding information from your manager that makes you look bad.

  • Inserting yourself into office politics.

When applied correctly in the right situation, managing up can help you achieve the outcomes you’re looking for, but if used incorrectly, aggressively, or in the wrong situation, it can backfire and hurt your image. It may take some time to learn how to effectively manage up, but when done correctly, you can get the results you’re looking for.

As you pick up tickets, you may be able to complete some on time without any outside help, but other times you may run into issues that require you to seek help from your team members. This may be as simple as mentioning what you’re stuck on during your team’s stand-up and asking for help from someone familiar with the part of the codebase you’re working on. Occasionally though, you may find yourself stuck due to external factors such as a dependency on another team or a technical reason why you can’t continue.

Use Leverage

As an engineer working towards a senior role, you should first try to figure out the issue on your own. Part of being a senior engineer is that you are able to complete small- to medium-sized tasks without any supervision from your manager. But sometimes you’ll get stuck and need to bring in some help. Your boss may be able to help unblock you, and if not, they should be able to point you to someone who can.

In cases where you’re stuck because of a dependency on another team within your company, your boss may have more leverage to ask the other team to do whatever you need them to do. Let’s look at an example where you could leverage your manager’s position in order to get what you need.

exampleSuppose you’re implementing a new feature for the sales team in order to simplify their workflow. If you don’t have enough information to move forward on a feature request, reach out to the appropriate person on the other team to get your questions answered. If you’ve been blocked because you’re waiting for a response, ask your boss if they can help get the answers you need. Sometimes, all it takes is getting your manager to contact the manager on another team to get your questions answered. Just be careful not to use this lever too much. You can earn a bad reputation with your manager if you escalate too often. It shows that you’re not able to handle roadblocks on your own. Only use this as a last resort after you’ve done all that you can.

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Tell the Truth

Sometimes, you may need to inform your manager about something they may not be aware of. Your boss has to make many decisions each day, and sometimes, they may not have all the information they need. Speaking up in these cases is part of managing up.

Your boss needs to know that you have their back, and sometimes that means telling them things that they need to hear, even though they may not want to hear it.

  • Perhaps your company is planning a new feature to bring in some new business. Your manager may agree to take on a new project with a tight deadline without realizing there are technical limitations that will make that deadline impossible without taking on a lot of technical debt. You should let them know as soon as possible so the team can adjust the timeline as needed.

  • You may have a boss that is new and isn’t aware of a risk factor that could cause you to miss one of your quarterly goals, such as integrating with a third-party system. If the other party is dragging their feet and there’s a risk of not hitting your deadline, let your boss know as soon as possible so they can manage expectations and modify the plan for the quarter.

It’s better to have difficult conversations with your boss about something than to let it simmer and boil over. By then, it’s already too late, and you’ll have a high-stress situation on your hands. If possible, it’s better to be open and honest with your manager so they can pivot or change directions if needed. In the end, they will appreciate the fact you gave them honest feedback.

Make Your Wins Known

As individual contributors, we’re deep in the codebase each week. We’re naturally familiar not only with the inner workings and how different parts of the system fit together, but also with which parts of the system need work. It’s easy for us to understand why a seemingly small bug is especially hard to fix, but it may not be apparent to someone who isn’t writing code every day. You may deliver a feature that seems trivial but was actually a really challenging technical problem that needed to be solved.

Your manager’s day will be filled with meetings, so they’ll always be further away from the day-to-day technical challenges than they’d like to be. Your boss may not know all the details about the problems you’re solving, so don’t just assume your boss is aware of the exciting accomplishments you’ve made recently, or the technical challenges you’ve overcome.

Part of managing up is learning how to inform your boss about your accomplishments. This is especially important if you’re close to or working towards a promotion. Ideally, your company will have a self-review process through which you can describe what major objectives you accomplished during each review period, but you don’t have to wait until the performance review process to let your manager know how you’re doing. Keep in mind your manager regularly gives progress updates to his boss, and he’ll want to communicate about his team’s wins and the progress they’ve made. To do that, your boss first has to know about what you’ve done. Try to find moments to let your manager know about your accomplishments, whether it’s in private or public.

exampleWork with your manager to establish expectations on the types of outcomes and behaviors an engineer at the next level demonstrates, then find ways to let your boss know when you think you’ve demonstrated them.

Dealing with Conflict

You and your boss are both adults. You’ll each have your own way of doing things, and you’ll have your own opinions on how something should be done. Hopefully, you’ll be able to figure out a way to work well together, but sometimes the two of you will have different opinions on how to accomplish a task.

If you have to disagree with your boss, do so politely and in private.

caution Do not surprise your manager with news in public. Doing so may catch them off guard and make them look unprepared in front of their colleagues, or even worse, their manager. It’s possible your manager may interpret your actions as being disloyal to them.

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