I don’t think I have ever gone to a seminar on this topic. I have been to many seminars about leading people, building teams and managing those who work for you. But how about the other direction. Managing up? I haven’t had much guidance there. What I have observed is that people don’t want to do it. It may go back to the days of school where no one liked being labeled “the teacher’s pet” or “brown-noser” so it’s not done. It’s been laughable to me that even at staff meals, the boss is left eating by themselves, because they are afraid of what that perception will mean to fellow employees.
But on the other side, I can’t tell you how much it means to have someone who authentically manages up to me. The most secure, confident, not “boss-pleasing” individuals are the ones who do it the best. Authentically. Humbly. Because they want to see their boss succeed.
Let me give you five ways, of many, you can manage up – and also a Biblical verse on the benefit.
- Encourage up. The old saying “it’s lonely at the top” is true. Because of the reasons I mentioned, your boss doesn’t get much encouragement. Spoken at the right time, genuine words of appreciation mean a lot. The word “genuine” is key and the key to that is your heart. If you are praising your boss to advance yourself, then it will come across as fake and self-promoting. Is your heart really to see your boss succeed? Once you get your heart in the right place, the words flow easily. You don’t have to praise after everything they do, but a word spoken in the right time can be words of life. I remember years ago we did an exercise with our staff at a retreat. As part of that exercise, I was instructed to put a blue box of tape around me on the floor. Then one by one, each staff member got to stand in the box and be the leader of the ministry for a few seconds as the eyeballs of the entire staff looked on. Many were impacted by that moment and felt the weight leadership can bring. Every move was being looked at by 170 eyeballs. Every action was being evaluated. Every action was judged. It was powerful. Imagine how a leader would feel if you encouraged them and spoke words to help them be successful. I haven’t met a leader who has it all together. We need each other and your leader needs you.
- Communicate your priorities. Boss’ are looking for self-starters. I have found it’s much easier to put parameters on an ambitious employee than it is to motivate someone to work. When you are overwhelmed by all the work you have to do, don’t wait for your boss to tell you what do and how to prioritize it. Managing up means you create the priorities you think are important. Schedule a check-in meeting with your boss and go over the priorities to make sure you are both on the same page.
- Anticipate your boss’s needs. God has wired us all so that not one of us has everything we need. We need each other. As you work with your boss, you will soon learn whether they are more on the task side or the relational side. You will learn whether they want details or whether they want just a summary. Deliver the information in a style that best meets their need. Ask your boss the best way he/she wants to connect. I have worked with ten board chairs in my career and each one was different. One wanted to meet face to face, one in person, and one just wanted Friday email summaries. When it came to calling meetings, some could do the whole agenda and some needed help to organize it. Some knew what the bylaws said, others didn’t. My role was to help them with those meetings, often creating draft agendas for them. As you work for someone, you will begin to learn their style and their strengths and weaknesses. Help them be a success as they do their role. Be their strength where they are weak. Understand their job the best you can and then make it your role to fill in the gaps.
- Don’t participate in gossip about your boss. Managing up means not tearing down. Something has happened in our culture in the last decade. Sarcasm, cynicism and disrespect of leaders is becoming the norm. Sadly, we are also seeing that in the church and in many ministries. We Christians know better, but still we choose to participate in tearing down leaders. Even in bigger Christian organizations, word travels quickly. If you are encouraging up to the boss to him/her in private, but then at the same time you’re gossiping about the boss, which one will eventually be seen as true? The Bible is clear about gossip and how serious of a sin it is, but we still allow it, because “it’s so common” and “we are just trying to help.” If it is to help make the boss better, then see point 5 below. If it’s just talk among staff and you are a part, then it’s gossip. Have the courage to stop it! Or better yet – walk out of the conversation and let other staff know you don’t want to be a part of the conversation. The truth is the same, people who gossip about the boss when they aren’t around are the same people who gossip about you when you aren’t there. Imagine the respect you will earn from them and from the boss if you say no.
- Humbly confront. To me this is the hardest but one of the best ways to manage up. When you are deeply troubled about something your boss has said or done, go talk to them directly. Too often other staff will discourage you from going to the boss. “Oh, he’s not approachable.” Or “he will never forget that and hold it against you.” It reminds me of crabs in a bucket. Did you know if you put a crab in a bucket by itself, it will crawl out? But if you put a second crab in the bucket, it will keep the other crab from escaping? If you put a bunch of them in a bucket, they will all keep the others from getting out and eventually all die in the bucket. Don’t let someone else be a crab to you! Go talk to your boss. Again, make sure you do it humbly, authentically and with a desire to help them get better. I have had the “pleasure” of several people over the years “confronting me” about something I have said or a behavior they thought I could improve. Can I tell you they were some of the best moments of my life? I know it takes courage to do that and I love the fact they cared about me enough to share their thoughts. I am not suggesting to do this all the time. There are some things you need to pray about and trust God to resolve. Keep in mind, your boss has a boss. In my case, it was the board and there were a few times in my career I had a strong enough relationship where I felt I could share some things. Confronting shouldn’t be the go to in every situation. We are all people under authority, but said in the right sprit at the right time, it can be powerful.
Managing up is about trust and about loyalty. As Christians we need to pray for our bosses. It’s amazing how perspectives change when we pray. Here’s the verse on why this is important. We all know Proverbs 3:5,6 “Trusting in the Lord with all our heart, etc.” but there are two verses just before this I really love. It’s Proverbs 3:3,4
Proverbs 3:3-4 New Living Translation (NLT)
3 Never let loyalty and kindness leave you!
Tie them around your neck as a reminder.
Write them deep within your heart.
4 Then you will find favor with both God and people,
and you will earn a good reputation.
When you manage up well, you are showing your loyalty to your boss. And what does God promise? Favor with God and man.
Go manage up well!
Tim McDermott was President of KSBJ for 27 years. He is now the COO of PraiseLive and helps CEO’s and their boards grow their ministries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org