We are continuously surprised how few of the managers we work with understand that managing up is part of every manager’s role. It may not be in your position description and it rarely rates a mention in leadership or management training programs, but there is no such thing as a one-way relationship in an organisation. Yes, the relationship with your boss is strongly defined by the role authority differential, but it is still a relationship between two people. To make it work, it needs investment and effort from both sides.

The primary investment required from you is to understand your boss. Ideally, you want a relationship based on trust, honesty, mutual understanding, shared values and objectives and an expectation of feedback flowing in both directions. Chances are, that’s not going to happen very often. Most managers we come across are poor people leaders and Gallup research estimates that only 1 in 5 managers have any people leadership potential. Whilst your boss may not be ideal or may lack the people management skills you are looking for in a leader, you still need to invest in the relationship. That process always starts with understanding your boss – specifically his or her needs, personality, goals, strengths, weaknesses and blind spots. Without that information you are flying blind and will likely find yourself over and over in situations that you didn’t see coming.

In addition to understanding your boss you also need to have self-awareness of your own needs, personality, goals, strengths and weaknesses. This knowledge will help immensely in predicting clashes, hidden assumptions or misread expectations of one another. Yet for you there is another piece of self-knowledge that is vital in managing up – your relationship to authority and authority figures. The relationship with your boss will inevitably trigger transference – it will conjure up the relationship with your parents and the childhood strategies you developed for dealing with authority figures (e.g. dismissive, submissive, competitive etc.). If you are unaware of your subconscious thoughts and behaviours towards authority figures, you will likely replay these strategies form your childhood, whether they are appropriate for an adult and in the workplace or not. That’s a recipe for failure if you harbour any unhealthy or counterproductive attitudes towards authority.

So how do you go about understanding your boss? The best starting place is to ask, of course, but that’s not always an option and doesn’t always yield reliable information. Observation and listening are the key to developing the understanding you need. To uncover needs, look at personality and frequent behaviours, especially behaviours displayed under pressure or stress. If you use DISC as the basic tool to assess personality, there is a straightforward link between DISC preferences and needs:

  1. Dominance/Directive – power, status, control
  2. Influence/Interactive – recognition, being liked, significance
  3. Steadiness/Supportive – acceptance, trust, harmony
  4. Conscientiousness/Cautious – security, being right, order

In addition to needs, fear is also a powerful driver of behaviour. D and C behaviour fear failure and I and S behaviour fear rejection. Just from guessing the other person’s DISC preferences you can infer a lot about needs, assumptions, communication style and fears. To us this is the best starting point in understanding your boss and we use this process with all our individual and group coaching clients. What we observe consistently is that managers overestimate the presence of high-D behaviour in their superiors. Most of the high-D behaviour is simply an expression of role authority, not a personality trait and the reason why so many of our clients get this wrong is in those unconscious beliefs about authority figures we touched on earlier. This is a great example where lack of accurate self-awareness will make you guess wrong about the personality of your boss and hence lead to bad choices when approaching or confronting your boss.

Armed with these insights you can then focus on uncovering more subtle characteristics like strengths, weaknesses, goals and management style. In general, these will have less of an impact on the behaviour of your boss than personality traits, needs and fears. Yet they can be quite important in understanding why the person chooses a particular way of, say, framing a problem. There more you know about what motivates your boss, the more you will understand and be able to predict future behaviour. This will make the difference between getting a project approved or rejected, or getting the extra resources you so desperately need. It will also mean that you have a much better appreciation for the pressures your boss operates under. With most managers today being permanently stressed through information overload, increasing complexity and conflicting demands being made on them, taking into account the environment is more important than ever before. We don’t do this naturally, as humans we are predisposed to pay too much attention to individual actions and not enough attention to environmental factors. Psychologists call this the Fundamental Attribution Error and you would be well advised to learn to override this flawed perception if you want to be successful in effectively managing upwards.

From a purely practical standpoint, there are a number of tried and proven ways of getting the basics right in working with your boss. First and foremost clarify the expectations your boss has of you and the results you are expected to achieve. This may seem trivial, but we are always surprised by how little managers know about the true expectations their boss has of them. For example, in a recent case the manager knew that his boss had a problem with his communication style and that he got stressed whenever a board paper was to be prepared, but he had never asked what in particular his boss expected to see in a board presentation or paper! With a perfectionist boss, this led to a devastating performance review and a relationship that lacked trust. All because the manager had failed to invest the time to clarify expectations to a level of detail that he would be judged on eventually.

The second basic strategy is clarifying information flows. What does your boss want to know and what does he know? In what form does she want the information to be presented and when? Religiously copying your boss into every email may do you more harm than good if your boss only wants to know if there is a problem with one of your projects. To know what your boss wants to see, just ask. Be specific – would you like to be copied into the whole email trail or just get a bullet point summary? Do you want me to tell you about any problems or only contact you if I can’t resolve them? Would you like me to brief you before we go into steering committee meetings? If your boss deviates from the agreed information strategy, it will most likely be a stress response. Do not change the strategy without seeking mutual agreement once the crisis has passed.

The final basic strategy is the simplest of them all, don’t promise what you can’t deliver. Be open and upfront about issues that could have an impact on your boss. Once your boss has decided that you are not reliable, you become a ‘problem’ and will be dealt with. This does not mean that you should be over-cautious, just realistic about what is achievable with the resources being offered and with the constraints being imposed.

The relationship with your boss is and will remain an asymmetric one. Investing the time and effort to create a relationship based on trust (where possible) and mutual understanding can go a long way towards reducing the likelihood for ‘career limiting moves’ and increasing your chances of making work more enjoyable for you.