• Gustavo Serbia

Managing Up Is Critical To Your Career Growth

Updated: Jul 20


When we first start working, we quickly recognize the importance of being a good manager. We may not know exactly how to go about it ourselves, but we can readily understand how our superiors manage us and others, at least we think we do. We start judging their capabilities and criticize their shortcomings. Many times we say – “if I were in charge, I would…” – and fill in the blank with pretty much any statement you like.

Being able to manage others is an important skill we must develop. But we tend to think of managing others from a top down view; meaning, we think of managing those who report to us, our direct reports. However, managing others also include being able to manage up or upwards; those whom we report to, as well as those above us in the chain of command.

Learning to manage up is crucial to your career growth and success. Your manager impacts many aspects of your job and career; opportunities for training and development, your performance review and merit increase, opportunities for promotions and referrals to other jobs or projects, are some of the areas your manager has significant influence over. While I am not arguing the fairness of this (that is a separate discussion!), what I am arguing is that you must be ready to deal with your manager regardless, so you don't end up with the short end of the stick.

Managing up involves different approaches based on the type of manager you report to. However, regardless of the kind of manager you report to, there are some basic actions you must take when managing up.

I want you to picture for a moment Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Just like there are different levels of needs, managing up also has different layers of needs. The following recommendations establish the basic foundation you need to have in place to effectively manage up.

Get to know your boss... really well

This means you learn how she operates, how she likes to approach issues or projects, how she communicates with you and others. You understand what is important to her, her needs, and her priorities. Think of yourself as a detective; you pay attention to all the clues, review them, and when needed, you act on them. Because of this, you deliver on her priorities, especially when these are driven by your boss’ boss.

You are an extension of your boss, so act accordingly

Pay attention to the details and accuracy of the work you deliver to her or on the department’s behalf. Because you are an extension of her, the work you produce and the results you achieve, reflect on her. You need to be able to articulate to others what is important to her when she is not present.

Being an extension of her also applies to your behaviors. Be careful you don’t say or do something that may reflect poorly on her, especially if it goes against what she has established as an expectation. Be careful when talking to others, particularly other superiors, about problems within your department. Airing the “dirty laundry” in front of others may not make her look good. Even when you are asked for your honest feedback about something that directly reflects on your boss, you must carefully navigate what you say and to whom, so it doesn’t come back to haunt you.

No surprises rule

This means your boss doesn’t learn from others about a problem, change or requirement, regardless if it is positively or negatively received if you were aware. When she discovers information from others that you knew about, there is the possibility she questions your loyalty. Keep your boss informed and up-to-date at all times. Just like those who care about you want to learn from you about what’s going on, good or bad, the same applies to your boss.

Don’t make me ask again

This is pretty simple; if you are asked or told once, take it as a warning that you must act. If you are asked or told twice, ensure you are not asked or told a third time.

Saying would’ve, could’ve, or should’ve doesn’t make you look good

There is nothing more irritating that hearing from someone that something is not working without offering a suggestion. If you are an entry level employee, you will stand out more by providing your manager with ideas and suggestions to problems you find. If you are a manager, you are expected to provide ideas to solve problems, not just highlight what the issues are. Providing solutions, combined with taking the initiative are almost all the time positively received by those we report to.

Your boss has a boss too, so get to know her too

Your boss’s boss has expectations like your boss has them of you. Pay attention to what is important to your boss’ boss. Get to know your boss’ boss. If it is important to your boss’ boss, it is important to your boss, and therefore, it needs to be important to you. Got it boss!

Careful criticizing your boss or giving her feedback.

You may want to share with your boss how the department is not working or how a process is not getting good results. Careful what and how you say it, particularly if you know it was your boss’ idea. Always consider the time and the place. Just because you want to say something doesn’t mean you must say it; at least not right away!

But, what about my boss type?

I recognize the above suggestions are general in nature and do not address more specific situations like harassment, ethical circumstances, or simply having a bad manager. The above are simple strategies that work in most cases. Beyond these, your particular circumstances require an understanding of the “context” to address them appropriately. However, as I previously stated, the above suggestions help to establish a foundation to help you build trust and credibility with your boss.

Remember, you may decide where you want to work, but you don’t get to pick your boss. Your boss, like you, is both a rational and emotional being. The degree to which one or the other is applied will vary from person to person, and sometimes from situation to situation. Therefore, you must prepare yourself to manage up no matter the type of boss you have. And because your boss is one of the most influential relationships to your career, learning how to handle her style and approach will benefit you.

"The most important instrument to career development, growth, and success is you. Therefore, you must work to stretch beyond your comfort zone, fine tune what you have to offer, and must do so continuously." - Gustavo Serbia

About Gustavo


I help organizations improve their employee experience by designing programs that prioritize culture, leadership, and the use of workforce management solutions and data. I also help individuals navigate their careers and the workplace. I write and focus on career management, HR technology, and workforce engagement.


You can follow me via social media on YouTubeFacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn. You can also find more information about career management on my website StretchTheString.com or at GustavoSerbia.com

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