Managing up: a complete guide to managing your manager

Written by CMI Insights Wednesday 17 March 2021
These proven techniques can help you managing up to your boss is a dinosaur, micro-manager or even a bully
Person at desk looking up sadly at their boss

You may be here because you have a manager that you need to manage; or perhaps you’re wondering if you’re a manager who has a sub-optimal management approach.

In this comprehensive article, we’ll be offering advice and pointing you in the direction of further resources and help. If we haven’t covered your problem, please do see if CMI’s ManagementDirect or Career Development Centre have the resources you need – or reach out to us.


Let’s get into it: the realities of ‘managing up’

David McLaughlin CMgr FCMI ChMC, resident core skills expert at CMI, led a very popular webinar on Managing Upwards. This is evidently an issue for members of the CMI community. While it may not be possible to solve the problem of ‘dinosaur managers’ completely, we hope that the experiences and advice in this toolkit can help address some of the issues you may be facing.

“It’s really quite challenging to change people’s behaviour,” says David. “But we can change our behaviour and manage our managers in a way that is effective and helpful. It’s important to remember that we don’t have any authority over our managers – but that doesn’t mean we can’t guide them in a way that we want them to act, and guide them in a way that’s appropriate for us to behave.”

Managing up can mean you feel you have to work around your boss, not with them. Perhaps they don’t give you enough autonomy, undermine your decisions, want you to do things their way and not use your creativity; or maybe they have a completely hands-off approach and leave you with no direction. Whatever the circumstances, if you have to give yourself the direction you’re lacking from your manager and work around their working habits, you’re managing up.

“You might be in a ‘parent-child’ work situation where your manager is ‘parenting’ you with the best of intentions. Whatever the root cause, something needs to change,” says Lesley Cowley OBE, CMgr CCMI. “I suggest that you introduce new ways of reporting to help [your manager] be better informed and reduce their need to check on progress so often, such as sending a daily project update email first thing every morning. If you do not have them already, you might also suggest a regular one-to-one where you review progress and plan ahead.

Tip 1: Reframe your exchanges – but keep your own needs in mind

David McLaughlin recommends trying to think of your manager as your most important customer. “This sounds really strange but stay with me!”

Think of your manager as a customer buying your skills and services. You become a service provider, and it’s down to you to make sure your manager is satisfied with what you’re providing. “The real trick here is to manage their expectations,” David says, “so we need to start thinking about what they need from us, how do they like to get that information, how do they like that service to be fulfilled? Are their needs something we can supply? If not, this is where it starts to get challenging, because not every manager can be managed.

“There’s an old expression: ‘the secret of a long life is knowing when it’s time to go’.”

Tip 2: Find the right communication style

We need to think about how our managers communicate and modify our communication styles so that we’re enabling them to be effective. In essence, this workaround puts you in the managerial position: you are adapting your behaviour and boosting your communication skills in order to make the conversation more effective. While it can be tiresome to do this, it’s great practice for when you’re managing a team (for the first time or otherwise) and already have the practice of proactively learning to understand different communication styles.

For some managers, email is the best way for them to express themselves clearly; for others, phone calls. Think about how productive your catch-ups are: do you get more sorted when they’re an hour long for full discussions, or when they’re 20 minutes for overview chats?

Tip 3: Make sure the behaviour doesn’t err on the side of bullying

Bill Michael quit as KPMG chair after telling staff to stop moaning. Unfortunately this kind of behaviour happens a lot. Many managers take their own discontentment and rant to their staff, which can be hugely demotivating and lead to a toxic work culture. That can mean that it’s unfortunately up to you to overcome this demotivational leadership and get the job done despite difficult circumstances and poor management. In this instance, first try to separate your own duties with the style of leadership you’re seeing. If you can manage your workload with minimal interaction with your manager, continue on and try to tap into your intrinsic motivation.

But, if your manager continues to tell staff that they must be positive, committed, enthusiastic and happy even if they are doing unfulfilling or thankless jobs, sometimes on zero-hour contracts, and especially during a pandemic, it can overflow into the realm of bullying. This is where you should try and keep a log of instances where your manager crosses the line, ask your teammates to do the same thing, and get in touch with a senior leader or the HR department with evidence for them to handle the problem. Find out if your organisation has a mental health first aider who you could speak to, or suggest a casual thirty-minute catch up with your team where you can relax and not talk about work.

Tip 4: Try and find your own blind spots

On the Managing Up webinar, David points us towards Johari’s Window (viewable on ManagementDirect) that models our self-awareness and shows how the process of giving and receiving feedback can affect awareness as we learn what others see, and let them know what we see. The model was developed by psychologists Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham to support their group process programme.

The four areas or window ‘panes’ represent areas of our self-awareness. These areas are interdependent and mutually exclusive: reductions or enlargements of one cause corresponding enlargements or reductions in another. The window panes are:

  • Arena: open to ourselves and others
  • Blind spot: open to others but closed to ourselves
  • Facade: known to ourselves but hidden from others
  • Unknown: unknown to self and others, and linked to our unconscious.

The Johari Window illustrates how self and group awareness shift as we disclose more information about ourselves and what we see, and learn more about how others see us. There should be reductions in our ‘façade’, ‘blind spot’ or ‘unknown’ areas. Reductions in these should enlarge our ‘open’ or arena area. Exercises based on the window aim to increase our openness, moving information into the open area. This facilitates trust and understanding.

Try thinking about yourself and where your blind spots are; perhaps there are behaviours of yours that your manager feels hinder your abilities or performance and thus feels the need to micromanage. Equally, as a manager, identify how open you are and how open you think your team feels to share their needs from a manager.

Tip 5: Provide evidence that presenteeism doesn’t equal productivity

Many leaders today have to manage and work in virtual teams. They may feel that their grip on their team is being loosened as a result. Yes, we’re talking about the manager who feels you need to show evidence that you’re working instead of just letting you work.

They may call more frequently, require daily summaries of your work, spend valuable time dictating how a task should be done in the time it would have taken to complete it. This can have a detrimental effect on staff and can lead to fear of reprimand if you’re not available quickly enough.

So how can we work around this?

“An ‘always on’ culture does not necessarily mean that people are more productive – they just think they are because they never stop working,” says Lesley Cowley OBE CMgr CCMI. “If your manager works in this way, it may be difficult for them to understand that you are just as committed and productive as they are. I suggest you steer the conversation away from a focus on individual output and broaden it to cover wider performance. For example, you could create a team dashboard, including customer satisfaction ratings, volume statistics and other measures of success. They will then be able to easily see how well the team is doing (or not).”

Tip 6: Leave the excuses at the door

“People don’t leave jobs – they leave managers,” says David McLaughlin. “And I say ‘managers’ loosely, because often that’s the cause of the problem: people aren’t managing appropriately – they’re micromanaging, they’re trying to control. Often that’s due to a lack of confidence, self-awareness, or fear that they’re getting it wrong.”

Sometimes these managers are just acting the same way their own manager behaves, says David. “You see this in public services a lot and in the police force and structured organisations that are very hierarchical; your manager would have been brought through the management chain in a very different way than we would find acceptable today.

“We’re not making excuses for poor management; what we’re saying is that it’s about understanding how they’ve ended up at that point. That will help you manage them.”

Tip 7: Calling out microaggressions could stop them

Remote working during the pandemic has, sadly, often created a petri-dish for microaggressions. Managers who relied on seeing their team at their desks are struggling with trust issues; members of staff are sending work emails late into the night and expecting a quick response. For many, remote working has brought benefits, but for some organisations it has bred negative behaviours.

According to Dr Jummy Okoya, associate programme leader for MSc human resource management at the University of East London and board member of CMI Women, differentiating between the three different types of microaggressions is a key to identifying the intention behind them. You can read them in full here.

Tip 8: You could find pastures new

This article may have made you think that you have some personal upskilling to do; it may just have confirmed that your manager does indeed tick a lot of poor management boxes. Sometimes, though, you can’t change a dinosaur manager’s behaviour.

So our last tip is this: you were hired for your skills and experiences and, if your manager is hindering your ability to perform at your best – and possibly causing your own wellbeing to suffer – you may need to find another organisation that will value you. Poor management all too often encourages employees out of the door. If you are a CMI member in this situation, our CV 360 review service can help you prepare for your next position.

“This is all about relationships,” says David McLaughlin, “and it’s about you and looking after yourself. Ask yourself: ‘can I deliver?’ and ‘is there mutual respect?’ If not, can you get help?

“If the answer’s no, do you need to be somewhere else? That sounds like a negative final thought but it isn’t, because we don’t want to get to that stage. We want to communicate and have those difficult conversations, we want to have that respectful challenge with our manager as we would any of our customers.”

You can watch our webinar on Managing Upwards in full here. Don’t forget to browse CMI’s YouTube page for recorded webinars, and check out our upcoming digital events here.

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