How do I: Manage Up? Don’t! Do this, instead.

Many of my blogs are triggered by someone asking a question.  That’s the case with this one, as well.  In this situation, a friend is adjusting to some leadership changes in her organization.  My short answer to the question “How Do I Manage Up”? is DON’T.  That is the wrong question.  The better question is How Do I build and/or strengthen my relationship with my manager?  We can boil the answer down to a handful of key principles.

Have a conversation

Maybe you have a new manager or a new job or maybe nothing has changed and you work in a business as usual world.  It is never the wrong time to engage your manager in a conversation about how you two can work (more) effectively together.  But before you begin that conversation, conduct a mini self-assessment by asking yourself a few questions:

  • How do I think the relationship is going?
  • What is working well for me? 
  • Am I delivering at or above my manager’s expectations?  If not, why not and what should I change?
  • Do I need help with some part of my job? 
  • If there was one thing the two of you could change about your relationship, what would it be?

The purpose of this exercise is for you to enter the conversation with a clear understanding of how you feel about things and what, if anything, you want as a result of the conversation. Once you are ready, it’s time to schedule that discussion.  Some starter topics you can use include:

  • How do you (Ms./Mr. Manager) think things are going?
  • Are you comfortable with how we work together? 
  • Do you think we communicate effectively?  If not, what should we change?  Is it a mutual adjustment or do I need to take the lead for any changes?  Can you share one or more examples so I really get it?
  • Is there anything about the way we work together that you want to change? 
  • If there was one thing you could change about our relationship, what would It be?


This is not a post about Active Listening.  That is a subject unto itself.  But that is what you need to do to make the conversation with your manager worthwhile and productive for both of you.  So here are a few tips (without getting into the details of active listening):

  • Hear your manager out before responding – especially if she is offering some constructive feedback as part of the discussion.  The most common active listening mistake people make is to start preparing a response as soon as the other person says anything less than flattering.  It is normal but you have to suspend that behavior if you want to maximize the benefits of the conversation.  Otherwise, you run the risk of not really hearing everything she has to say.
  • Ask clarifying questions if needed.
  • Ask for examples to illustrate the point(s) she is making.
  • Play back what you have heard in your own words.  This allows you to confirm you have understood correctly.  It can also be a “feel good” moment for your manager as it confirms she has communicated effectively with you.
  • Don’t feel that you must respond in the current conversation.  If you have learned something surprising, it is absolutely OK to say something like “Wow.  I didn’t know that or I didn’t see it that way.  I’d like the chance to reflect on your point and discuss it further in a follow up meeting”.
  • If the conversation leads to a realization that you need some help, ask for it. 

Agree on Next Steps

Now that you’re in a dialogue, agree with your manager about what next steps (if any) are appropriate.  What are your individual and shared expectations going forward?  Who will do what? And by when do you expect to check in with each other again on the action points?  I like to send my manager a simple email following this kind of conversation.  The purpose is to assure there is a clear, shared understanding of the discussion and what the next steps are.

Follow Through

If you have agreed on some changes, make sure you do your part of to follow through. The conversation is a starting point in building that relationship.  By delivering on the commitments you made in the conversation you demonstrate you care and are investing in strengthening the relationship.  Following through also builds trust.  I don’t know anyone who says they don’t need more trust in their work relationships.

A Few Additional Tips

No surprises.  You have likely heard this before but it bears repeating.   Don’t let your manager be surprised – by either good news or by a screw-up.  We all make mistakes.  If you’re involved in a mistake, be the one who lets your manager know it.  It is far better for you to report the situation than it is for your manager to be surprised by someone else telling her.

Own the mistake.  It is one thing to report a problem before she hears it elsewhere.  It is another thing to own the problem.  If you are a manager, yourself, maybe someone on your team made the mistake.  Accept responsibility as the manager of that person. 

Have a solution. 

Ideally, when you inform your manager that there is a problem, you can also present a solution.  If you can’t or don’t know how to correct the issue, ask for thought partnership.  But don’t let your current inability to fix it on your own delay letting your manager know what is happening.

Final Thoughts

Building and maintaining a productive relationship with your manager is not a one-off event.  Leverage your investment in the conversation to keep the lines of constructive communication open.  And if you are a manager of people, encourage your folks to do the same with you.  We’re all in this together and it’s a lot more fun to succeed together than it is to be frustrated or unhappy together.

Somers HR Solutions  is an independent consultancy dedicated to helping business leaders and their teams diagnose and solve people management challenges.  Managing Partner, Ken Somers, is especially adept at coaching HR Business Partners and business leaders to enhance their organizational impact.  He is passionate about delivering “answers for the real world.”

Ken’s career spans more than 40 years as both an HR practitioner and executive leader.  In addition to his domestic experiences, he has lived and worked in Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, India, and Malaysia.  Ken completed his most recent assignment as the interim country head for an insurance company’s back office operation in Poland.  Ken’s vast international experience enables him to bring a multicultural and multi-generational perspective to solving client challenges.

If you found this blog useful and/or if you can use some help in addressing a people leadership challenge, contact me at:

+1 508-507-1207 or

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