5 Ways To Lead Your Manager (without it being icky)

I often hear project managers talk about how their sponsors or line managers are unavailable or just don’t seem to be able to provide the direction, support or communication they feel they need. If that resonates with you, the best way to improve the relationship and keep the work moving forward is to manage up.

It might sound manipulative or weird, but in my experience, leaders appreciate it when people in the team are clear, concise and help them to do their job better because they are leading from below.
Depending on who you work with, maybe the time has come for you to step up and lead your manager, or any senior manager in your organization. There might be any number of reasons behind this, normally connected in some way to getting the answers you need to continue managing a project.

Managers are in their position because they were once good at the job you’re doing. That’s usually the minimum requisite to advance. They might be great leaders in other respects — for example, I once worked with a brilliant project sponsor who was able to influence and communicate exceptionally well, but he had a tendency to try to influence the details of the project when he didn’t have all the information (and hadn’t done the job for 20 years), so we had to manage that relationship to steer him towards the tasks he excelled at!

However, many managers fall into bad habits once they move up and do not realize their actions affect their team members. That’s when you might need to manage up.

It’s not easy to manage up the chain, but with proper preparation, you can navigate your way to success. Here are some tips for leading your manager.

1: Give amazing feedback

You might have heard the phrase that employees don’t leave companies, they leave managers. Although that’s been debunked by Culture Amp’s research as the main reason people resign, poor management still has the ability to influence a colleague’s intentions to stay.

Instead of leaving a bad manager, why not make it your mission to improve them? Chances are you want their job one day, and these are important skills to have to be better than your manager!

Open lines of communication are a requirement for any cohesive team, and giving feedback is part of being able to communicate effectively.

First, understand if your manager is accepting of feedback from their direct reports. Providing feedback that will fall on deaf ears is a waste of time if done incorrectly.

You will know right away if your manager is accepting of feedback. Open dialog when you are working together helps you know your manager will not snap at you when you tell them to change something.

Here are some quick tips to ensure your manager will open up a little more.

  • Find a private area to provide feedback. No one wants to be called out in public!
  • Provide positive feedback before negative feedback
  • Talk about the benefits to the team if they make a change!
  • Raise a perceived problem and allow them to make the decision to change

Read next: 4 Management Styles for Giving Feedback

When a manager is unwilling to listen to feedback or new ideas, they may remain distant or become defensive when the subject is raised. They may blame other factors. Empathize with the manager to let them know you understand their vulnerabilities. Open them up by asking their help with something. Use your own leadership skills.

If all else fails, remember that people need to be willing to change in order to enact that change. We cannot do it for them. The goal of feedback is simply to provide others with the information to make a change.

2: Clarify what you need

We have wants and needs within our daily lives. This does not end with the want of a new car, or the need of transportation. At work, we may need something but can’t get past the want. In the instance of the new car, we want something flashy with heated leather seats. The need however is getting around and a city bus would perform the same task with a smaller bill.

The difference at work is that we seldom understand the need behind the want. Perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed recently and you discuss this with your manager. The want is that you want to leave at 5pm each day, and not sign back onto work. However, the need may be larger than that. Did you miss your daughter’s basketball game? Perhaps you haven’t seen your friends in a month? These are valid needs for work life balance.

When speaking to your manager, discussing the wants will often come across as complaining: “I want to work less!”

Phrase it in a way that won’t make your boss think about all the other, more cooperative, staff available. For example:

“I have not been able available to my family after hours because I feel my workload is large at the moment. Does anyone else have capacity?”

This allows you to clarify why you’re feeling overwhelmed and clarifies that you understand that the work is important enough that others should help.

Graph showing survey results
These are the results from a stakeholder management survey I ran. Read all the results here: https://rebelsguidetopm.com/the-stakeholder-management-survey-results-are-in/

3: Stop dropping monkeys from your back

A major pet peeve of leaders is when someone asks for a handout in the form of questions. One of the most popular Harvard Business Review articles is Who’s Got the Monkey, originally from 1974 but still relevant today. In this, when an employee comes up and asks you a question, there is a “monkey” lingering on the employee’s back.

The way they ask the question allows the monkey to jump from their back to the manager’s. Managers already have enough monkeys and generally they hope they have built a strong team who are capable of doing a good job without too much intervention from them.

Be mindful of how you ask a question. The way you ask a question can sometimes allow your monkeys to jump to your manager. Don’t let them. “How do you do X” is a monkey-jumping question, while “Where is the documentation on performing X” is monkey-retaining. The second question does not put your manager into problem-solving mode.

Be mindful of when you ask a question. You can also cause monkeys to jump by asking questions at the most inopportune times. If it’s the end of the day, your manager may try to take the task as opposed to taking the time to guide you through your issue.

The same goes for before/after meetings (check their calendar) or if someone else is at their desk. Ask if it’s a good time — great managers won’t have a problem saying they are in the middle of something if it doesn’t suit their schedule, but they will make time for you later. If your manager has issues with time management, ask to book a conversation with them because swinging by their desk or calling them up on web conferencing will probably never find them at a good time.

Be mindful of your effort before asking a question. If you are taking more than fifteen minutes to figure something out, you may need a second set of outside eyes. Conversely, if you just hit a problem and did not put in due effort to find a solution yourself, you need to think hard about your work ethic. Don’t allow others to do your dirty work. This is also called “let me Google that for you!”

No one likes the employee who needs their hand held at every opportunity, or to be reminded how to breathe. Take more initiative to show your manager you are a leader they can trust. Once you prove that, you can start taking the monkeys from your manager.

5 ways to manage expectations

4: Be clear, be concise, be direct

Another step to lead your manager is to not waste their time! Most people think they are excellent at communication and can “wing it” without proper preparation. When dealing with managers and higher levels of the company, they want to know what is important and not necessarily the entire back story.

First, you want to state what you want from them. Are you looking for their time commitment? Is it approval for a specific task? Are you just informing them of something so they have up to the minute information? Always start with what your clear expectation is for them.

Next, be concise with what made you seek them out to begin with. If there is an issue, you don’t need to go into what happened months ago, just stick with what is important now! This will take practice before going to your manager. Stick with the Reader’s Digest version first, and add details if requested.

Lastly, when you communicate with a manager, be direct with your comments. Do not beat around the bush. Your discussion may be critical, or your manager is not picking up innuendos you’ve placed in your speaking points. Be an effective manager yourself. Make your points, and get out of there quickly.

5: Be solution-oriented

The mindset of a solution-oriented person allows them to stick their neck out for how they would solve a problem. If you ever find yourself with an issue that needs to be raised to your manager’s level, come with a solution in mind. Do not go seeking your manager’s insight without first finding how you would start to tackle the task.

Do not fear having thoughts of your own. If your solution is not the most efficient, it is still better than allowing someone else to have all of the ideas. You want to be known as someone who eliminates issues, and not one who allows them to fester. By bringing your own solution and acting, you show your manager you’re a trustworthy candidate for the next manager role!

Your management skills will grow by learning how to manage up and build an effective relationship with your boss. It’s all about building trust, open communication, honest feedback and a positive attitude. Leaders influence others, and it’s absolutely fine to manage up — in fact, your boss will probably appreciate your efforts!

Pin for later reading:

How to lead your manager

This article first appeared in 2018 and has been edited and updated to keep it current.

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