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  • Writer's pictureDawn Burkett

Managing Up: 4 steps to building a better relationship with your boss

We've all heard it - people don't quit companies, they quit managers. So true. A Gallup study found that of the 7,000+ people polled, half of them have left their job because of their managers.

But what's also true is that we often-

  • underestimate our responsibility as a direct report.

  • underestimate our role in the relationship.

  • underestimate our ability to make our managers better.

You may be thinking, "Whoa, wait a minute. Aren't managers responsible for doing the leading? Isn't that their job?"

Yes. They are the manager, and we have very high expectations for them. We often expect managers to do the work of building the working relationship for several reasons…

  • They are being paid to manage

  • They have the title

  • They have more experience

  • We don't want to cross a line

  • The ball is in their court, right?

While these reasons make sense, keep in mind that a professional relationship requires both parties to put in the work. When we make assumptions that our manager is going to initiate and build the relationship on their own, we will always be disappointed. I can't help but think about my kids. Although I am the parent, I expect my kids to take initiative, tell me what's going on, ask me for help, and share when I've done something to upset them.

I can't read their mind and your manager can't read yours.

This is where we must learn to manage up. When you manage up, you:

  • "build a successful working relationship with a superior, manager, or employer" (source)

  • take an active role in showing your boss how to manage you

Before we move on, it's important to know that there are several variations of what managing up is out there. While we can take a definition and run with it, I want to be clear that managing up is

done 100% of the time and is NOT reserved for only poor managers.

Think about your plate vs. your manager's plate. They look quite different. We can all be guilty of not fully understanding what is one their plate. Here are a few things to consider.

  • There is one of them and several direct reports. This is important to recognize because it can be easy to forget that your manager is responsible for leading many different individuals that each have their own personality, needs, and experience.

  • So. Many. Meetings. Do you find yourself getting frustrated that they don't seem to have time to be involved with their team's daily responsibilities? That's totally a fair frustration. They probably feel the exact same way! Their work looks very different than your work and they are often pulled into meetings to make decisions on behalf of the team, build cross-functional relationships, stay informed on larger scale projects, and so much more.

  • Playing Tetris. With all the stuff that gets piled on their plate from so many meetings, they work behind the scenes to determine what the priorities are, who will do the work, how they will respond to tight deadlines, and when they will find time to get their own responsibilities completed.

I'm sure that your plate is filled with many of these things as well but don't forget that if you are feeling overwhelmed, chances are that your manager is feeling it x10.

So, with all these considerations, you have the unique opportunity to manage up. And when you effectively manage up, you are making yourself someone that they can trust and rely on…. making your job and their job easier.

Let's break down what managing up looks like.



The best place to start when managing up is to assess your leader's leadership style. Understanding how they communicate, manage, and interact will help you to know what's important to them. We could absolutely deep dive into different leadership styles, but for the purpose of simplicity let's narrow the styles down to three:

  • Authoritarian

  • Participative

  • Delegative

Your boss might have an authoritarian leadership style if…

  • They make decisions on their own without consulting or seeking input from their direct reports.

  • There is a distinct line or division between the leader and direct reports.

  • There is a strong focus on what, how and when a job should get done.

  • They thrive in a compliance-driven environment where decisions need to be made quickly.

  • They have a strong knowledge-base and use that as power.

Your boss might have a participative leadership style if…

  • They are involved with their direct reports and solicit input from the team before making a decision.

  • They spend time in group discussions and meetings.

  • There is a strong sense of team within the work group.

  • They thrive in a collaborative environment where quality and creativity are recognized.

  • They offer guidance and coaching to their direct reports regularly.

Your boss might have a delegative leadership style if…

  • They provide little input and rely on the team to come up with the decision.

  • They lack clarity and structure as it relates to job expectations.

  • There is a feeling of disconnection and confusion among the work group.

  • They thrive in an environment where direct reports are considered experts and require very little direction.

  • They rely on their direct reports to keep them informed on work progress.

Okay, got it. I think my leader has a(n) ______________ leadership style. What do I do with this information?


Once you know their style, you can work to cater your interactions. This is so important because when we take the step to meet their leadership style needs, they will likely take notice and appreciate your effort. This is your start to being an active participant in the professional relationship. With consistency, your boss will value your awareness… which opens the door to the next step!

So, let's look at those three styles again and apply this.

My boss has an authoritarian leadership style. Here's how I can cater my interactions with them…

  • Keep them in the know. They do not like surprises and will become distrusting if they feel as though they are in the dark. Make it a point to keep a list of "happenings" so they can be kept in the loop.

  • Anticipate decisions that will impact you and/or the team. Keyword here: anticipate. Provide your boss with information (facts, figures, impacts to the team, etc.) for them to consider ahead of time.

  • Ensure you are following the chain of command. Titles are important to your boss, be sure to honor those titles. If there are roadblocks to getting what you need to do your job, communicate to your boss the specific hurdles you are facing then, ask them for advice. This ensures you are not putting blame on them. Here's what that might look like:

    • "I have created a proposed timeline for the project. Before moving forward, I need input from key stakeholders. I'm not getting adequate face time with them. How would you handle this situation?"

  • Ask for help. When we ask for help, we are showing our leader that we value their experience. We are also proving to them that if we find ourselves in over our heads, we will ask for help. This plays a big part in building trust.

    • In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown talks about why this is so important. In her research, she asked 1,000 leaders this question: "What do your team members do that earns your trust?" The most common answer was… asking for help.

    • Asking for help doesn't mean that you rely on them to make all decisions. And please, don't treat it that way. But it does mean that you value their input… and isn't that what you are looking for in return?

My boss has a participative leadership style. Here's how I can cater my interactions with them…

  • Take initiative. Your boss is all about collaboration which means that they want to hear from you. Don't wait to be asked for your ideas… take the initiative to bring ideas and improvements to them.

  • Take on different roles when working with your boss. If you are always the "yes person" or in support of their ideas, they may not feel as though their ideas are being properly vetted or challenged. Again, they value your feedback… give it!

    • I had a co-worker who was awesome at this. She always offered a different perspective and did it in a way that made me feel like she was simply building on my idea… not trying to tear it down. Here's how she would offer feedback: "I like where you are heading…. I wonder if {feedback]."

  • Assess and appreciate the contributions made by others on the team. Your boss values the team- it is important that you do too. Take the time to determine the specific value each person brings. When working with your boss (and team), be sure that you are giving credit where credit is due.

My boss has a delegative leadership style. Here's how I can cater my interactions with them…

  • Ask for work boundaries/expectations up front. Because your leader is the opposite of a micro-manager, they will not want constant updates. Asking for expectations and boundaries up front shows them that you respect their time.

  • Set your work commitments/deadlines and communicate those to your boss. Since they are hands-off, they will not establish this for you but will appreciate your structure. Doing so takes care of several things:

    • Gives you tangible objectives and timelines to work from.

    • Keeps your boss informed and allows them to answer questions about your work if asked.

    • Builds clarity for you and the team as it relates to work goals and/or ownership.

  • Keep communication brief and big picture. Just because they don't ask for updates doesn't mean they don't need them. They are still your boss and need to be aware of important information. Provide simple high-level "FYI" updates. If they want or need more detail, they will ask.

  • Leverage your peers for the details. Stuck on something specific in your work assignment? Reach out to people on your team to help you vet the details which will:

    • build your relationship with teammates (which is important when you have a delegative manager)

    • allow you to move forward without going to your boss (because they are not into details)

    • show your boss that you are resourceful.


Regardless of what style your boss is, they need to know what value you add. And when you tune into their leadership style, you are making it easier for them to see your value. When done right, you are making their job easier. By anticipating their needs, you become easier to lead.

  • They know they can count on you. In every example above, you are solving problems and reducing the noise. Over time, your boss will start feeling as though you've got things under control.

  • You are starting to build your "proof" that you are trustworthy. We all know that trust doesn't just happen, it's through the small things over time.

  • Your boss will become more confident in your strengths and will find that they need you. When your skills are not in competition with your boss's but complement your boss's skills, you both win.

With mutual trust and respect, your job gets easier. There is no timeline here and you will probably spend a good deal of time in this stage. Be patient and aware of the small wins. If your boss has an authoritarian leadership style and they approve the first draft, make a mental note of the progress. If your delegative boss gets curious and offers advice, lean into it and make sure you recognize their contribution.

Don't forget that relationships take two! In this stage, it's important that you share what you need from your leader. If you work for a participative manager and you feel like you need more one-on-one time to connect, ask for it. Be sure that you acknowledge their style and share your style. Here's what that might look like:

  • "You lead in a way that makes everyone feel involved and valued. Our team is strong because of your focus on hearing everyone's input. I find it difficult to process and verbalize my input in our team meetings and I often have ideas after the fact. Is it possible for us to meet one-on-one at the end of the week so we can connect and talk through ideas?"


It never stops! Any relationship requires work.

  • Learning to appreciate your manager's unique style (because every manager is going to be different) strengthens your own ability to adapt (which is a super important skillset to have, btw).

  • Being able to share what you need from your manager (and not allowing things to pile up and frustrate you) gives you both a healthier work environment.

  • When you take the time to really know and understand your manager, you learn more about the pressures and challenges they face. Liz Wiseman, author of Impact Players, calls this "upward awareness" which requires:

    • Perspective taking - What does their world look like?

    • Upward empathy - What does their situation feel like?

    • When done right you not only see how you can make their job easier, you also "get it" and look for ways to make them successful. Which makes you successful too!

  • Like any relationship, working with each other becomes more natural. And when you are able to understand and respect each other, work is easier.

And I totally get it, this can be easy to say and hard to do.

The biggest takeaway is that relationships require work from both parties to be at its best. That means we play a huge part in the success of the relationship. When we manage up, we take responsibility for what we can control… ourselves.

Here's a recap resource to help!


About the Author

Dawn Burkett is the Founder & Principal at DRIVE Talent Development. She is all about developing people to make meaningful impact at work. Learn more about Dawn and her work here.


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