The Delicate Art Of Managing Both Your Boss And Your Employees

The best leaders are able to manage their employees while adapting to the needs of those higher up on the management hierarchy. Here are six ways to manage up and down at the same time.

The Delicate Art Of Managing Both Your Boss And Your Employees
[Image: Flickr user JD]

When we talk about managing people, it’s usually a discussion about effectively guiding, motivating, and interacting with the people who report to you. However, there is another management direction–managing up–that is often overlooked.


“The old-fashioned way of thinking about [managing up] is that you hitch your wagon to the star of some super-human business leader whom you think is going places,” says New Haven, Conn. management expert Bruce Tulgan, author of It’s Okay to Manage Your Boss: A Step-by-Step Program for Making the Best of Your Most Important Relationship at Work.

But Tulgan says that managing up is more a matter of helping your boss manage you while helping that person succeed. The most effective leaders are adept at integrating the demands of managing up and down. They are able to remain effective team leaders while adapting to the needs of those higher up on the management hierarchy. Here are six ways to manage up and down at the same time.

Get what you need.

Tulgan says being effective at managing multiple levels within an organization requires getting what you need from your supervisors to do your job. That includes four key fundamentals:

  1. Clear performance expectations, both broad-based and specifics such as goals, timelines, and rules.
  2. Candid positive, informational, and corrective feedback.
  3. Ongoing discussion about how to find the resources and people necessary to do the job.
  4. Tracking of recognition and rewards.

Those cornerstones allow you to understand what’s expected of you and your team, communicate effectively about what’s going well and what need correction, and ensure you have the resources and people you need to get the job done. The last point ensures that any motivation or incentive structure is maintained and awarded as it is earned.

Adapt upward.

Just as you may need to change your management style for the different personality types who report to you, you need to be adaptable to your supervisor, says Florence, Mass. leadership and management consultant Roberta Matuson, author of Suddenly in Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around. When you’re managing up, you’re “managing the way your boss wants to be managed, not the way you want to be managed,” she says.

If your supervisor is a just-the-facts type, skip the detailed background and get to the point. If he or she is going to pepper a broad-strokes approach with dozens of questions, then back up and give more detail from the start. By synching your approach with what your boss needs to function best, you’ll both get more out of the relationship, she says.


Be visible.

Matuson says you have to toot your own horn to be heard in a sea of cubicles. Put yourself in a position to have more contact and informal conversations with those above you. If your boss is leading a company-wide charitable initiative, volunteer. Is he or she heading up a new project team? Offer to be a part of it. You have to be your own advocate without being overtly self-promotional and working more closely with your supervisor is a good way to do that, she says.

But not enough of us do: A January 2014 survey by Ipsos Public Affairs and sales consultancy Sandler Training found that while four in five working Americans say the key factor in business success is to “sell yourself,” nearly two-thirds (62%) spend an hour or less each day doing so.

Think about the big picture.

Frederick W. “Bill” Smullen, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell and author of Ways and Means for Managing Up: Fifty Strategies for Helping Your Boss Succeed, says too many people don’t think beyond their immediate responsibilities. He says improving your influence and getting ahead requires demonstrating that you understand some of the larger organizational goals.

Think about your manager’s goals and what he or she needs to accomplish. How can you support those efforts, and help move the company closer to its goals? For example, if you’re pitching a new project to your supervisors, be sure to present its value for both your bosses and the company overall. When you do this on a consistent basis, more senior members of the organization are going to rely on you for information.


“That’s how you claim your seat at the table [of leaders]. If you’re not being invited to those meetings where important ideas are discussed and decisions are made, you need to work on making yourself more valuable to the people who are at those meetings,” Smullen says.

Engage your employees.

You need to be a strong conduit from your supervisors to your staff, even when it’s difficult or presents conflicts, Tulgan says. Being the person who says, “I don’t want to do this, but my bosses say I have to,” takes away your power and makes you look ineffective.

As you develop stronger relationships with your managers, work with them on messaging and positioning to present ideas and changes to your employees. When that’s not possible, use your own knowledge of what motivates your team to explain the situation and help them understand how it fits into the company’s goals. This helps them learn how to manage up, too.

“Sometimes, that means delivering bad news. Sometimes, that means saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to do this, but we can’t right now. I’ll keep going to bat for it.’ Sometimes, you have to say, ‘Things are changing again. It happens. Here’s how we’re going to get through it,’” Tulgan says.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites