Dana Brownlee: The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up

  • February 28, 2019

The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up is a refreshingly practical and candid guide for the best practices and techniques that project managers have successfully used for decades to manage a wide variety of senior-level stakeholders – ranging from perfectly competent and pleasant to downright dysfunctional and inept. In this adapted excerpt, project management expert Dana Brownlee sources tried-and-true methods for managing up from the trenches by talking to every day everyday people and offering techniques grounded in research. 

While conducting engaging corporate trainings and speaking around the world, Dana Brownlee's found that the most asked question was always, "How do I deal with a bad boss?" The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up tackles difficult bosses such as, "the wishful thinker," "the clueless chameleon," "the meddlesome micromanager," and more, offering specific strategies for each, and even for working with good bosses that have the right idea but need help with execution. 

Dealing with a boss that's less than perfect 

“Managing up” has become a trendy buzz-phrase in the business lexicon. Certainly, we all understand the concept of traditional top-down management, but what exactly is managing up?

Most managers are far from the perfect ideal and more likely flawed (possibly struggling in one way or another), so let’s explore what that may look like in the workplace. Along with their strengths and advantages, they also often possess certain disadvantages or weaknesses either due to their own personal failings or due to inherent difficulties of holding a more senior-level position. Sometimes leaders can become somewhat handicapped by their ivory tower position. They may not be as close to the customer or have their ear to the ground in terms of what staff really think. They may not understand which processes are truly broken or have an accurate sense of customer trends. They may also have their own developmental weaknesses or shortfalls and be so swamped with broader responsibilities that they don’t have the bandwidth to pore over the details before every decision.

Like anyone else, they sometimes don’t know what they don’t know (unconscious incompetence), so they can have huge blind spots even when their intentions are honorable. For teams to operate at maximum performance levels, oftentimes it’s not just important for managers to manage (down, that is), it’s also important for staff to continuously manage up if the team is to yield optimum success.

Not surprisingly, a whopping 84 percent of survey respondents affirmed that managing up is an important skill set for success in most organizations. While 9 percent of respondents were neutral on this question, I suspect that the remaining 7 percent who didn’t agree with the statement may misunderstand what managing up really is or haven’t been exposed to the powerful techniques that can help virtually anyone increase their success in the workplace.

"Managing up" defined

When I’m asked to define “managing up,” this is my personal formal working definition:

Managing up: A subordinate customizing their work style/behaviors to better suit their manager and taking steps to make their manager’s job easier in an attempt to optimize success for all.

Simply put, in my view managing up is about taking things off your boss’s plate and making their job easier. Depending on your specific boss and work situation, that can entail different behaviors and skills. In this video, I talk about the common misconceptions of managing up, which create unnecessary obstacles to practicing effective techniques of managing up that are useful for everyone.  


Feedback from the trenches

The survey feedback certainly confirmed that it’s not uncommon for the term “managing up” to be either foreign or misunderstood. Some respondents indicated that they weren’t familiar with the term, while others seemed to buy into some common managing up myths. In particular, some respondents indicated a belief that managing up equates to brown-nosing or trying to control your boss. Another mistake is assuming that managing up is only relevant for difficult bosses. We’ve mentioned already that nothing could be further from the truth.

I like to say that managing up is just like exercise. It may become more of a necessity if you’re in poor health or overweight but it’s absolutely beneficial for everyone. Thankfully, the vast majority of respondents fully appreciated and understood the true meaning of managing up and provided valuable insights based on their personal experience with managing up.

Here are some sample comments:

  • “I think in every situation (peer or manager), we have to tailor our approach in working with them. Customizing our style/behavior to better suit the manager (as long as it is not violating company or personal values) can make life a whole lot easier in the long run. Focusing on the team’s success is good for everyone — even if the manager is a clueless fool.”
  • “The times that I’ve experienced the most discord and dissatisfaction at a job are mostly related to the times when I did not manage up in my role and responsibilities.”
  • “I regularly ‘manage’ my current boss (she is not difficult at all), simply by anticipating her needs, schedule, and projected stress/pressure level. I know what projects, client meetings, and deadlines she has, and adjust my schedule to complete work well in advance of when she needs it. I also look at her calendar to see when she’s most busy, and give her suggestions on ways I could help ease her workload during those times.”
  • “We cannot change anyone, but we can make a difference certainly while we are with them and spark or inspire one to choose to think, act, and behave more effectively within the organization.”

What does managing up look like?

Managing up may require different behaviors or actions depending on the situation; however, employees who actively manage up are typically those who will:

  • Anticipate problems and actively work to prevent them
  • Actively work to make their boss’s job easier by being exceptionally reliable and productive
  • Adjust their work and communication style/approach to better fit their manager’s preferences
  • Be particularly flexible and willing to take on the “dog” projects that no one wants
  • Speak truth to power when necessary; be the one willing to tell the boss the ugly truth when others won’t
  • Learn to navigate prickly or difficult boss personalities to achieve optimal results for the task, team, or project

While admittedly some of these approaches may or may not work in your environment, it’s helpful to review general techniques used in the trenches.

Tried-and-true managing up techniques 

  • “Bring allies to meetings and bring as many options to the table as you can.”
  • “Understand your boss’s communication style and use it, even if you don’t like it. When you communicate effectively much of the conflict is eliminated.”
  • “For a leader who consistently misses deadlines, putting items like Please Review and Action Requested in the subject line of the email. Putting my requests in bold and in the first line of the email. Giving due dates. Following up in-person meetings with written recaps of action steps.”
  • “Understand what is driving the leader’s fear, and where possible, be proactive, such as scheduling meetings to prep the boss before monthly meetings with his/her senior management.”
  • “Clarify to him how you understand what the job is and get a verbal consent. Then type a summary email for the record— this is the key.”
  • “Ask early and often what is the most important thing I should be working on. Understand what keeps them up at night.”
  • “Empathy—try to understand why they behave that way, put myself in their shoes.”
  • “One technique is to overachieve to build confidence. I used this technique so my boss would feel confident and let me manage things more autonomously.”
  • “Use ‘we’ sentences—letting them know you’re on their side helps them relax when they’re too stressed.”
  • “Looking ahead on projects and having the answers before an emergency breaks out.”

For me, hearing what techniques or approaches others have effectively used to manage up in general and manage difficult bosses in particular is so helpful. A few respondents admitted they hadn’t found any techniques that worked or ultimately chose to leave their job or move to a different organization out of a sense of frustration, and that’s helpful feedback as well.

There is no one-size-fits-all solutionunwritten-rules-of-managing-up-3d-left

What worked for one person in their situation with their boss may be ill-advised for your situation with your boss, but the great news is that there are lots of effective techniques for you to add to your toolbox to help increase your chances for success. Managing up isn’t easy, but it’s absolutely important and effective. Most employees don’t take the time to actively manage up, so the ones who do truly stand out from the crowd. The good news for you is that this book is full of specific techniques to help you learn to manage up whether you’ve got a great boss or a nightmare. 

Dana Brownlee is a corporate trainer, speaker, and workshop facilitator who helps individuals and teams reach new levels of performance. She is the founder of Professionalism Matters, a corporate training company based in Atlanta, and previously worked at AT&T, IBM Consulting, and EMC Corporation. She has been featured by Working Mother, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, and Fast Company. Brownlee has presented to audiences across the United States and globally.

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