The #1 Way to Be a Great Employee

In one of the first jobs of my career, I had a very hands-on, micromanaging boss. She frequently double- and triple-checked that I had completed even the smallest tasks. Not surprisingly, it kind of drove me crazy.

Looking back, though, I consider that job to be one of my best learning experiences in professionalism, attention to detail and — most importantly — the art of “managing up.”

When people talk about management, they’re usually referring to how you manage the people who work for you. In this case, we’re talking about managing the person for whom you work: your boss. Can you really “manage” the person who is managing you? Absolutely.  This is what it means to “manage up.” And I consider it to be the best way to become a great employee and get what you want from your career.

Note that managing up is not the same as kissing up. I love what blogger Penelope Trunk says on this topic, “Some people think managing up is brown nosing, but in fact, a lot of it is about humanizing the workplace. Managing up is about you caring for your boss, and the result will be your boss caring for you.”

I totally agree.

Here are some suggestions for how to manage up:

Learn what drives your boss crazy. We all have pet peeves, and one of the best ways to manage up is to learn what completely irritates your boss. Does she cringe at grammar mistakes? Does it irrationally annoy him when people send overly long emails?

You can find out what drives your boss crazy through several methods:

  1. Trial and error. I once had a boss who stormed into my cubicle one day saying, “Lindsey! Will you please stop cc-ing me on so many emails?!”
  2. Consulting with colleagues or other people in your workplace who know your boss’s style well
  3. Asking directly. There is nothing wrong with setting up a chat with your boss to ask if he or she would like you to handle anything differently or communicate in a different way. “Do you have any pet peeves I should be aware of?” is a great question to ask, especially if you’ve just started a new job.

Know what, when, where and how your manager likes to communicate. This is absolutely crucial. You may learn a bit about your boss’s communication style by asking about pet peeves, but communication happens in many forms. Remember that the way you like to communicate may not be the same way your boss likes to receive information. To be great at managing up, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  • Does your boss’s communication style lean towards the informal or the formal?
  • About how often is it acceptable to “pop in” to your boss’s office?
  • In general, does your boss prefer to receive long emails covering a lot of topics, or individual emails for individual topics?
  • If you’re running late or taking a sick day, how would your boss like to be alerted (phone, email, text)?
  • Does your boss prefer to be kept in the loop on everything you’re working on (e.g., with daily or weekly update emails) or is he or she more hands off?

Again, you can find out the above information through trial and error, consulting with colleagues or asking your boss directly.

Bring solutions, not problems. One failsafe way to manage up is to always bring your boss ideas, solutions and research instead of questions, problems and complaints.

For instance, let’s say you can’t find information your boss has requested about a start-up company called NewCorp. Instead of saying, “Sorry, I couldn’t find any info about NewCorp,” come to your boss and say, “I did several Google searches, looked on LinkedIn and Twitter and called a few venture capital firms, but I couldn’t come up with any information at all about NewCorp. As a next step, do you have the names of any of the founders or products that I can research and perhaps find more information that way? Or would you like me to research other companies that have recently launched with similar products? Let me know how you’d like me to proceed.”

What you’re doing in this situation is making your boss’s job easier by reporting the facts, bringing suggestions and simply asking your boss to decide on a course of action. In any situation, ask yourself, “What can I do here to make my manager’s job easier?” The result is that your boss will see you as a problem- solver, a doer and a person he wants on his team. Everybody wins.

What is your best advice for managing up? Please share!

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hi, i'm lindsey!

Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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