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Published:Jan 15, 2021

Managing Up: How Developers Can Better Communicate to Management

Everyone’s had a bad boss.

And then there are the bosses that aren’t necessarily bad, but who are overworked, overextended, disorganized, or just straight up disengaged with their work. Those bosses are a dime a dozen.

Dealing with bad bosses is something that we all have to learn, regardless of the industry we work in. The same goes for dealing with mediocre bosses, and even dealing with good bosses who, for whatever reason, aren’t doing the best job at being bosses. One secret? It’s something called “managing up,” and it’s gotten a lot of attention in business circles in recent years.

Managing up isn’t just for the corporate world, though. Developers can make use of this tactic to better deal with their managers, too. Read on to learn all you need to know.

What Is Managing Up?

A lot of different experts and publications define managing up in different ways. But at the core of what they all say it means, managing up is doing everything you can to make your boss’s job easier — basically, it’s managing your manager.

The Harvard Business Review has written a lot about managing up in recent years, and says that doing so effectively takes a combination of these five steps:

What Is Managing Up?
  • Communicating your priorities to your manager, and seeking their feedback;
  • Being able to anticipate your manager’s needs;
  • Understanding what makes your manager tick;
  • Knowing the right way to approach your manager to discuss problems; and
  • Learning how to be a well-rounded employee who can help out in a variety of different roles.

Why Would Anyone Want To Manage Up?

We know how this sounds: Like it’s a lot of work. In fact, one of the most prominent criticisms of managing up is that it asks lower level employees to essentially do their boss’s job — without getting their boss’s pay.

But managing up gives workers more control over their work environment and conditions. It allows them an active voice in setting expectations at work, and establishing norms for the workplace. For developers specifically, managing up can be an effective way to protect your autonomy at work, and minimize conflict with your boss, other members of your team, and anyone else at work.

And while managing up is a great tool for dealing with a less-than-stellar boss, these tactics offer other benefits, too. Regardless of the quality of your boss, managing up establishes you to be capable, efficient, and a self-starter — someone who can be trusted to manage their work without any hand-holding or micro-managing, and someone who will likely be able to rise in the ranks of their organization quickly.

How Can Developers Manage Up?

Managing up is a little bit different for software developers.

Why? Modern software teams have to work together in a fast-paced, highly collaborative, experimental, and iterative environment. In order for teams to succeed across the organization, everyone involved in any given software project needs to be good at communication, collaboration, coordination, planning, and prioritization.

In other words? Everyone — not just managers — needs to have “management skills.”

That means that members of software teams aren’t as able to just show up and do their jobs as workers in some other industries. Because developers are required to have these skills, it’s common for more of the management load to shift as everyone on the team becomes deputized to help out — particularly in cases where managers are overworked or overextended.

But that doesn’t preclude developers from consciously managing up to make their own lives easier, or to advance their careers. Here’s how to get started, one step at a time.

Your First Managing Up Experiment: Step By Step

For a developer who hasn’t tried managing up before, it can be intimidating to figure out how to get started. Here are some easy steps to follow to get the hang of managing up. Once you’ve gone through these steps a few times, you should be able to manage your manager effectively on the day-to-day, and on large projects.

Your First Managing Up Experiment: Step By Step

Step 1: Try to pick a skill area that requires little to no investment. When you’re first learning how to manage up, it’s a good idea to do so in an area where you’re already skilled and comfortable. It gives you better odds of knocking your experiment out of the park.

Step 2: Baseline the current state well before you start making changes. A key to being successful at managing up is to show that your autonomous work is of good quality and improves the team’s work or moves the team forward. So before you start, make sure you document the baseline you’re working with so you’ll be able to show improvement.

Step 3: Based on the current metrics and perception, create a plan that will improve KPIs. This is where the baseline you established will come in handy. Figure out how to improve beyond that baseline, and then take your plan to your boss to show them how you can make the desired improvements.

Step 4: Execute the plan with your boss’s blessing. Managing up isn’t about going behind your boss’s back. It’s about presenting your plan to improve metrics in such a way that even your boss will see how this makes your life, their life, and the lives of everyone on the team easier. You want them to have no choice but to give you their blessing.

Step 5: Measure for success. Track whatever KPIs are important and compare them against the baseline you established in Step 2 so you can clearly show improvement.

Step 6: Move on to another item to build more trust. Once you’ve shown you can improve one area of your or your team’s work, choose another to focus on. This shows your boss that you can replicate your autonomous success.

Step 7: Run this for at least 3 cycles before you ask your manager for anything big. As you establish yourself as someone who can deliver on your promises and make improvements at work, you’ll eventually build the trust needed to take on bigger and bigger projects — and more and more control over your work environment.

Best Practices for Managing Up

Like any other skill, though, managing up is easier said than done. These are some of the best practices that will help you succeed at managing your manager.

Dos and Don’ts

Let’s start with the things you should and should not do when managing up.

Best Practices for Managing Up

Do:

  • Be curious. Get to know your role, your boss, and your boss’s role. Ask a lot of questions. Show an interest in everything about your work and your company.
  • Anticipate needs. As you get to know your boss and their job better, you might be able to deliver on what they need before they even ask you for it.
  • Jump in. Always be willing to help out wherever and whenever you can.
  • Think about the big picture. Try to see beyond your role, and what the goals and direction are for your entire organization. Then, align your own goals and priorities with the bigger picture.

Don’t:

  • Manipulate. There’s a very big difference between managing up and sucking up, brown-nosing, or being a yes man. You want to be seen as positive, helpful, and self-starting, not as someone who sucks up to their boss to win favor.
  • Get involved in politics. Just about any time a group of people works together, there’s bound to be office politics. Avoid getting involved in them by not talking about other people, but instead focusing on doing your job well and delivering quality and results.
  • Cover up your mistakes. As you take on new projects and strive to lead and work autonomously, you’re bound to make mistakes. Own up to them when they happen, and be reflective about how you can learn from them to get better and avoid making similar mistakes in the future. That’s the mark of a real leader.

Getting Better At Managing Up

Like any workplace skill, getting better at managing up takes work and practice. Here are some ways to continue to improve at managing your manager.

Come With Solutions, Not Just Problems

When you run into problems at work, yes you should present those to your boss. But when you come to your manager with a problem, try to also bring a potential solution or two. It shows initiative and mastery.

Take Small Things Off Your Boss’s Plate

Managing up doesn’t have to be all about big, grand projects that propel your entire organization forward. It can be as simple as looking for small things you can volunteer to handle for your boss so they’re off their plate. Look for tasks like scheduling meetings, booking meeting rooms, doing basic research, and other administrative tasks that can save a lot of time for your boss.

Adjust Your Work Style to Fit Your Boss’s Needs

One of the best tips for successfully managing up is to adjust your work and communication styles to fit what your boss prefers. For example, if they prefer emails over face-to-face meetings, try to shoot off messages to them throughout the day rather than stopping by their office with questions and updates.

Lead New Changes That Meet Big Picture Goals

Look for ways to change your workplace processes or innovate, and when you present those to your boss, volunteer to lead the work that it will take to implement those changes. This shows a few things: That you’re aware of and thinking about the big-picture goals of your organization, and that you’re willing to put in the work it takes to move toward those goals.

Learning how to manage up will take time and work — this is definitely a long-term strategy for gaining autonomy and control over your work environment.

But that work will pay off when you’re a trusted part of your organization, known for being able to tackle any problem without being micromanaged. Give your boss better things to do than breathe down your neck — start managing up today.

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