How to Manage Up Without Falling Over

Mark Lewis
January 14, 2020
min read
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What does it mean to manage up

The concept of managing up might sound like compensating for a poor manager, but in reality it’s about taking on responsibility and investing in an important relationship which will ultimately make your job easier.

A large part of the way we interact with our manager is based on the lens we see them through. A high performing employee will manage up by seeing their manager as a coach, someone that’s on their team, they can lean into for help, share ideas with and seek feedback from.

If you’re doing knowledge or service based work, try not to view your manager as a person with answers to all your problems. Make it a part of your growth journey to research, learn and overcome the daily challenges in your domain.

Having an outlook that managers will have all the answers, can place unrealistic expectations on the relationship. We’re no longer in the industrial era, where work was repetitive and managers were the experts in the minutia of every job. In a knowledge and service world we’re making decisions on new problems every day.

Today’s managers add value by supporting their team, clearing the obstacles and freeing them to do their best work. As an employee, communicate when you’re struggling and what support you need.

As a team member it can be super easy to make assumptions about the role of your manager. Historically I’ve not been good at managing up, I’ve made many incorrect assumptions which have caused me a lot of angst. My top 5 biggest mistakes were thinking:

  1. My manager should tell me what to do.
  2. That it would be inappropriate for me to make suggestions to my manager.
  3. That my manager should know more about my job than me.
  4. That I’d be recognized if I just put my head down and got on with the job.
  5. Sticking rigidly to my job description would have me considered as a high performer.

I can now recognize that these were my assumptions. At the time though, they were my expectations and you can imagine how frustrated I was when these expectations weren’t met. Take a moment to consider these mistakes, and doing the opposite of what I did is probably about right.

How to manage up in a knowledge era

As an employee, performance is not only about how well your job is done. As I learnt, if you’re not managing up and communicating about your contribution then it’s hard to be recognized for it. And don’t worry, we’re not suggesting you start beating your chest and constantly selling yourself!

As well as doing a good job, we need to be deliberate about the relationship with develop with our manager. This is not usually a responsibility that gets assigned to anybody, some managers will naturally take the lead but in many cases it simply won’t happen.

So don’t leave it to chance, use the following tips to successfully manage up with your manager and become a high impact employee that everyone wants on their team.

Discuss a modus operandi for working with your manager

It’s valuable for your manager to understand how you like to work (and for you to understand how they like to work), but sometimes this can be hard to articulate. If you do struggle, try spending 30 min on ‘A user manual for me ’. - this article has an awesome downloadable template from Cassie Robinson .

Agree a cadence for meeting 1-on-1

Speak with your manager and agree a cadence for meeting 1-on-1 (tip: at least once a month, ideally fortnightly or weekly). When working out your cadence, think about the relationship you have with your manager and the time you’ll need to invest in managing upwards. Have you only recently started working together and you’re still getting in sync with expectations - meet frequently; Or have you worked with each other for years and you’re very much on the same page - then less frequent is okay.

The format should be flexible, but it’s up to you to set the agenda for what will help you progress most. The conversation needs to be future-focused and an opportunity to communicate upcoming work, seek guidance on blockers, discuss team dynamics, learning goals you’ve identified, etc.

Read our blog on 1-on-1 meetings here.

Remember, you usually only have one manager, but your manager will likely have many reports. So it’s your job to take responsibility for organizing the 1-on-1 meetings and share talking points in advance of each 1-on-1. By removing the admin from your manager, you’re doing a great job of managing up because you’re maximizing their time for helping you and making it easier for them to deliver value… As a manager I can’t convey enough how much I appreciate this.

Establish some discussion templates

You can explore our 1-on-1 template examples to get you started. Templates can help to keep the conversation focused on productive areas. For your initial meetings you could easily base your template on the one we use here at Crewmojo. Our weekly snapshot covers most of the topics you might want to discuss and can help your manager by giving them a predictable structure for the discussion.  

Identify & share your top 3 goals

Managing upwards also means identifing the top goals you could achieve in the quarter that would have the biggest impact on what your team is trying to achieve. By doing this, you’re removing the mental load of coming up with goals from your manager - a highly effective way of managing up. If you don’t know what the bigger picture looks like, ask your manager to describe the overarching direction of the company and the role your team plays in that.

Once you’ve got the first version of your goals, discuss with your manager (in a 1-on-1) and ask:

  • If the goals are well aligned with the team and company direction.
  • Are they a good stretch for a quarterly cycle? Too much, too little?
  • Any suggestions who might be good people to collaborate with to speed up learning or progress?
  • Anyone else you should keep informed of your milestones that will impact their work or decisions?
  • Confirm you would like to discuss your goals (progress and challenges) in your 1-on-1s . Aim for multiple times throughout the cycle and not just an end of quarter review.

Read our blog on getting started with quarterly goals here.

Agree to communicate a regular status update

An important part of managing up is communicating a regular status so your manager doesn’t have to ask (whether they ask or not, they’ll be thinking about your progress as it plays into the bigger picture). It should only take 10 minutes to convey 3 to 5 achievements you’ve made in the current week, 3 to 5 things you will aim to achieve next week, and any challenges you’re currently facing that you might like some help with.

This might sound like a bit of a chore because it’s stuff you’re already across. But as a manager, receiving such proactive, frequent and succinct communication is both useful, and confidence inspiring in your abilities.

  • It keeps your manager from worrying that you’ve gone off working on a tangent
  • It means your manager won’t have to ask what you’re doing , which helps them to be an empowering leader
  • It allows your manager to focus where they can bring most value - helping you to clear your blockers

This simple process of writing down our achievements is a like an act of journaling that nurtures a sense of progress. It allows our brains to acknowledge the amount of things we achieve. Without this reflection and in the busyness of each week, it can be so easy to downplay or underestimate our progress.

Make it easy for people to give you feedback

Just because a person is a manager, it doesn’t mean they are automatically comfortable with sharing feedback. In fact, most people are deeply uncomfortable with the process which can literally trigger fight or flight reactions, closing down the very parts of the brain most needed for a productive conversation.

There’s an easy answer, manage upwards and be the initiator - request feedback but don’t mention the ‘f’ word, eg. “I’ve worked on the first version of the slide deck and would love to know if you see any areas it could be improved?”

Actively seeking feedback is not a sign of weakness, in fact it sends a much more powerful message than you might think. It communicates that you are open to learning, you are prepared to be vulnerable, and that you are conscientious, humble and attentive when it comes to your work ethic.

By making it easy for your manager to give you feedback, you are literally de-stressing the relationship. Because if you are doing something that’s not aligned with your manager’s expectations and they happen to be uncomfortable giving feedback (like most people), the problem will most likely simmer and become a much bigger issue - and guess who’s likely to come off worse?

Read our blog for 3 simple steps to get going with feedback

So far we’ve have setup a rock-solid framework for effectively and proactively managing up, covering quarterly goals, fortnightly 1-on-1 meetings, weekly status updates and in-the-moment feedback. These communication cycles will build a relationship of trust, confidence and clarity between you and your manager.

Learn how we make this process easy in Crewmojo

Book a Demo

Don’t be a box ticker

So far we’ve covered the key practices for managing upwards. But it’s quite possible to tick all the boxes for the stuff written into our job descriptions and still not be considered a high performer when compared to others.

In fact, most employers consider the job description stuff to be a minimum standard, not a ‘high bar’ to be striving for.

I’ve been in the management meetings when employee performance is being discussed and sure, the data from the evaluation process is considered, but there is a whole extra layer of conversation that doesn’t feature in the forms. It’s about attitude, contributions made beyond the job description and how you amplify the effectiveness of others in your team.

Think about the type of work ethic you want to be known for. Being the type of person to proactively identify and make a suggestion for your next activity, rather than waiting for your manager to come up with a task is incredibly valuable managing up too… And you get to help shape your role into what you enjoy and what you’re great at!

When managing up, be a team player

A study by Google which looked at performance across different teams found what really mattered was less about who is on the team, and more about how the team worked together. It didn’t matter if the team was filled with grade A players!


A further study by EY found that 90% of work problems being solved are so complex they can only be solved by teams.

So if you really want to make an impact, we need to look at how we work with other people, and our impact beyond our immediate role. The words ‘being able to work in a team’ just role off the tongue, and I’ve previously made the mistake of thinking that it simply means: “I will be doing some work that forms part of a bigger project."

Well I was wrong, working on a team is much more than just doing your own bit. It’s about being a good human, helping others to be successful, making their lives easier and contributing outside of your designated role, sometimes at the expense of our own comfort or workload.

Here are some examples:

  • Be a positive influence. Be the person who recognizes when colleagues have made a big effort or lived the company values . Call it out and celebrate the success of others.
  • Be curious about the challenges of others, explore solutions with them and be a good listener.
  • Empty the dishwasher, pick up trash, help put the decorations up, organize a team lunch, pick up the coffees, say happy birthday, ask how the weekend was…
  • Have empathy for teammates, build their confidence, encourage them to contribute, and offer to be a sounding board.
  • Actively contribute outside of your position description. Take the time to learn about other areas of the business, how your work fits in and what success looks like for your teammates.
  • Concentrate on making your team as successful as it can be… and have fun along the way!

Whilst some of these examples may seem small, trivial or insignificant, it’s not always the act of doing it that’s important, it’s the underlying message that says loud and clear you care deeply about the well being of your team. And that you’re willing to contribute to the success of the team above your own advancement.

Behaving this way is very much contributing to managing up because you’re helping to make the overall team more effective which is an even greater force multiplier for make your manager’s job easier.

Final words on managing up

What I’ve described here can feel overwhelming in terms of implementing into your work routines. But here’s the thing, just implementing one routine will make a tangible improvement. In fact, I would recommend mastering one at a time.

For example, it’s no good having 1-on-1 meetings where you only talk about the past, this will feel like a chore with no value, then you’ll stop doing them and think it was a waste of time.

I’m still on my learning journey too. To begin with, I found the process clunky and awkward in many ways, but with practice I’ve got better at the way I share feedback, set my goals and keep the conversations future focused. But I still have plenty of work to do before hitting the level I’d like to be at.

If you are just starting out with a more deliberate apprach to managing up I’d recommend sharing with your manager that you’re trying out some new approaches to communication, acknowledging it might be a bit awkward but you’d like to go on this journey together. Again, it’s not so much the words that are important here, but the emotional maturity you’re displaying by addressing your vulnerability head on.

PS. Don’t forget to keep it human, managing up is about better employee-manager relationships and this can include a bit of fun too!

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