How to manage your manager

content manage manager upwards mountain

What helps employees to succeed in the workplace and get rewarded with higher salaries? Unfortunately, employees who focus only on producing good technical work sometimes get neglected.

The employees who get the most positive performance appraisals and pay rises tend to engage in a skill called upwards management – taking the initiative to actively work on the relationships they have with their managers.

Here are five pointers on managing upwards and helping your manager to see you in a more positive way.

Understand the need for upwards management

Some employees make the mistake of believing that they can advance in their careers simply by being assertive and asking for what they want. However, research tells us that assertiveness may actually backfire. In a classic study, academics David Kipnis and Stuart Schmidt at Temple University found that employees who demonstrated high levels of assertiveness with their supervisors tended to be evaluated less favourably by their supervisors. These employees also reported more personal stress and earned less than other employees who used assertiveness less frequently.

Employees may believe that by being assertive they are coming across as ambitious and demanding of respect. In reality, though, managers tend to perceive overly assertive employees as pushy, presumptuous and bothersome. So, trust the data showing that employees who engage in successful upwards management – by changing their behaviour to meet the needs of their managers – tend to achieve greater career success.

Develop your observation skills

To begin managing upwards, watch your manager to understand their needs, likes and dislikes. Business school researchers have found that a skill called ‘sensitivity to the expressive behaviour of others’ is linked to success in the workplace. So, be more watchful of your manager’s facial expressions so that you can identify your manager’s likes and dislikes. What makes your manager frown or appear disappointed or annoyed? What seems to please your manager or at least make things less complicated for your manager?

For example, does your manager mostly prefer to receive updates in person, over the telephone, or in emails? Some managers like being able to make eye contact and ask questions; others prefer receiving emails so they can take the time to reflect on how best to respond.

As another example, consider how often your manager likes to interact with direct reports. Certain managers want multiple, short updates – maybe even several times a day. Other managers prefer to be left alone and to interact with their reports far less frequently.

Adapt to your manager’s style

Once you have identified the ways in which your manager likes to work, you can begin to alter your behaviour accordingly. For instance, even if you do not enjoy picking up the telephone to call your manager, you may need to do so if you spot that your manager prefers phone calls to emails. Or, if you discover that your manager prefers to read reports in slide presentations rather than emails, then make the effort to communicate your updates in the form of slides.

Search hundreds of roles from all over the world on ACCA Careers

Sign up for a job alert tailored to your desired location and role

Adapting to your manager’s style is important because you make life easier for your manager, which will almost certainly lead to more positive appraisals about your performance. In addition, showing that you are adaptable and easy to work with demonstrates your broader value to your organisation; it sends a message that you could be similarly flexible and easy to work with when dealing with more important stakeholders such as senior colleagues, as well as high-profile external clients.

Focus on your manager’s strengths

Many employees find it easy to find fault with their managers. For example, you may find that your manager does not communicate enough or that your manager makes decisions that you perceive to be unfair. Or, perhaps you feel that your manager is a micro-manager who does not give you enough autonomy in your work.

However, studies have found that employees are generally more successful in their careers when they can focus on their managers’ strengths more than their managers’ weaknesses. Researcher Randall Gordon at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, has found that a specific tactic called ‘other enhancement’ is particularly effective for managing managers.

Other enhancement is effectively about making positive comments about traits, skills or knowledge possessed by your manager. However, the same research points to the fact that such positive comments must not be viewed as insincere or manipulative flattery.

So, by all means make positive comments about your manager if you genuinely believe that your manager possesses certain positive characteristics, capabilities or expertise. For instance, you may believe that your manager has many weaknesses such as being unclear when delegating, indecisive when under pressure, and terrible at listening to reports. But if you honestly feel that your manager is a charismatic presenter and good at business development, then do find appropriate opportunities to tell your manager that you recognise these legitimate strengths.

Consider cross-cultural differences in what your manager finds acceptable

Studies have shown that managers from different countries tend to find different behaviours acceptable. In one investigation, researchers Ping Ping Fu of the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Gary Yukl at the State University of New York at Albany investigated the effectiveness of influencing strategies in the United States versus China. Their data showed that American managers endorsed influencing strategies involving rational persuasion and exchange more strongly than did Chinese managers. In contrast, Chinese managers rated coalition building and relationships as more important than did American managers.

The wider implication is that what works in one country for managing upwards may not be entirely effective in another country. When you move to another country, take your time to learn what is deemed appropriate there. Make an effort to observe how employees manage their managers; but also consider asking your new colleagues for advice on what to do – and what not to do – in terms of managing your manager.

Author: Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace @robyeung |

More information

This article was first published in Student Accountant in December 2022 | Get the SA app now

Back to listing