Managing Up: How Do You Build a Relationship With Your Manager?

“I need to talk to you about an employee that I am having trouble with.”

Like a lot of you, I get calls all the time with people that want to bounce things off of me. I also volunteer my HR services to non-profits. This statement came from a founding member of the non-profit that I have been working with for the past year.

The executive director/founder had hired a direct report. The interview went well, and references checked out — that is, until this person started work. It seemed that as time went on, the new hire became disconnected from the executive.

Building a relationship

When the executive would schedule a meeting between the two, the direct report would just refuse to show up, saying that she had other things to do. When there were group meetings, she was very dismissive of her. It got to the point that she tried everything she could to just not have to communicate with her boss.

I thought of this scenario this week when I was part of an MBA course interview. Each student was asked to interview a corporate executive and get their insight on three questions. Collectively the questions centered on managing up. Specifically how do you build a relationship with your manager?

Besides being honored to be asked, I was impressed with the questions. For anyone that knows me, knows that I have an opinion on lots of things, however I keep it to myself only if asked.

I like questions that make me think and get away from the snap answers that I have given so many times. When you are asked the same questions over and over again, you tend to look at them as lobs.

I have served on so many panels during my career and very seldom am I asked a question that you really have to think about and formulate a response. However, these questions all gave me time to pause and think them through.

So my post this week is on the following four questions and my responses to each:

1. What do you think about managing up to your boss?

This is a subject that is not taught in college. This is a subject that in order for you to be successful, you must figure it out on the job. There is no manual, so you have to create the manual yourself.

In order for you and your manager to connect, you must be cognizant of managing the relationship. You want to be seen as a productive and valuable part of the team. For that reason, it is your best interest to figure out how to get this relationship on track. We have all probably experienced the “boss from hell,” but even in that case, until you find a way to get out, you have to find a way to connect.

Managing up is working with your boss to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and your organization. This has nothing to do with kissing up. Rather, it is a deliberate effort to build a relationship between two different individuals where one is in charge of the other.

2. How do you manage your boss?

First and foremost, you must be the best employee you can be. You should strive to build a relationship with him or her, and understand your role within the department. In order to manage your boss, your first order of business is to figure out their style.

Try and think of the value that you bring to your boss. To be successful, you have to be in sync with their work style and habits. Even though you have the job and have gone through the interviews, you must show value once you get inside the organization.

The value that was created at your previous company does not translate, for the most part. You can’t live off the superstar reputation that you previously had. You have to begin again the methodical process of building up your credibility in this new environment. The first step of this process is dealing with the manager that you report to.

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Ask your new manager how you would like to interact. Ask them about what type communication they prefer: voice mail or face-to-face, detail or overview? What is their preferred method for sharing information? Concentrate on making their job easier. Get to know their style. Until you figure out their style, you are going nowhere.

3. How do your best subordinates manage you?

Now the table is turned — how have your subordinates managed you? Think of your best subordinate over the years (if you have managed people). My best were the ones that, whenever there was a problem, always mentioned it but also would say that they have given it thought and offered up a solution.

Our conversations were always about solutions. I do not like “problem” reports, the ones that can always spot and bring you a problem. I do, however, love the ones that think, have an opinion, and come up with a solution. That was my style — and they figured it out.

4. “It is not your actual performance that counts, but your manager’s perception of your performance.”

I have always loved the phrase “perception is reality.” What we perceive is usually what we believe, and it is based on what we see, hear, and think.

So based on that thinking, it is important that your manager hear the right things about you. This had to do with departmental feedback, peer feedback, etc.

If they see us struggling with deadlines, interactions, and contribution, that is how we are going to be perceived.

If we give them reason to think that we are not in sync, we are perpetuating this thought process.

So as I thought this week of the non-profit and the fit between the executive director and her report, I came away feeling that in order for this person to be successful in her next career role, (she was eventually fired), Job 1 is that she must learn from this mistake.

In her (or your) next role, concentrate on building the managerial relationship.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.


3 Comments on “Managing Up: How Do You Build a Relationship With Your Manager?

  1. Ron – I love this piece. The relationship with your manager is perhaps the single most important contributor to career success. I know I’ll keep these points in mind for myself, and I’ll be sure to pass this advice on whenever I have the opportunity.

  2. This is a great piece about the relationship between employees and managers. Another way to improve relationships between managers and employees is to look more closely at fit in the hiring process. By using new technology like online video interviewing or video resumes, recruiters and hiring managers can spend more time focusing on potential hires who will fit into the corporate culture and get along with existing managers.

  3. Impressing your manager’s boss is like presenting an edited work designed to convey key messages effectively. A textbook’s author picks and chooses information so that the reader gets to the point without getting overwhelmed or confused, similarly we must pick and choose information to manage the impression we create in front of our senior managers.

    Jappreet Sethi

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