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Managing Up: How To Lead When You’re Not The Boss

By Kelsey Miller
June 18, 2019

For many professionals, there come times when you realize that your manager or boss simply is not as effective as they could be.

They could be ill, unusually busy, facing personal challenges, or just having an off day. They could be overwhelmed or simply unfit for the leadership position that they hold. Whatever the reason, this often leaves their subordinates—you—having to step in and pick up the slack.

The process of stepping up in these situations is often referred to as managing up, and it’s a skill that any professional with the desire to eventually advance to a managerial position should have.

What Does “Managing Up” Mean?

Most available leadership advice stresses the importance of effectively managing the team that you are charged with overseeing. This typically follows a process of downward communication, in which the flow of information is directed down through each level of the organizational hierarchy—for example, from the executive suite, down to middle management, down to rank-and-file employees. Organizational theory, however, suggests that managing upward and sideways is equally as important to an individual’s career, and to the company as a whole.

While there are many definitions of the term, managing up refers to the process of an employee taking steps to improve their boss’s efficiency and efficacy.  This tactic includes:

  • building a solid relationship with your supervisor,
  • using your relationship to anticipate their needs, and
  • communicating with them effectively.

Essentially, managing up means managing your boss.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that there is a fine line between managing up for the overall benefit of the team, and trying to manipulate your boss for personal gain. The former will demonstrate that you are, in fact, a strong leader, while the latter will accomplish the opposite. Harvard Business Review points out that managing up should ideally be a “process of consciously working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the company.” By managing up the right way, you can build a successful working relationship with your manager, while at the same time expanding upon your own leadership skills.

How to Manage Up

A key factor in effectively managing up is having the ability to understand your boss on a deeper level than might be typical for most employee/manager relationships. By truly getting to know your boss, you will be able to:

  • Understand their communication and decision-making styles, allowing you to make better use of their limited time and attention.
  • Align yourself with their goals so you can anticipate the needs and challenges associated with those goals, and help to achieve them.
  • Help them stay up-to-date by keeping them in the loop about issues or concerns related to any project or initiative that they are engaged in.
  • Become a trusted source of information and help—someone who they know they can turn to when an issue arises.

Additionally, effective communication is a vital leadership skill that you’ll need in order to be successful in the workplace, regardless of your role. In particular, it is important that you can have meaningful discussions with your superiors so that you can work through challenges together.

In practice, one of the best ways to manage up is to manage yourself.

By going above and beyond the tasks and responsibilities assigned to you, you can make your value known, reduce the amount of managing that your superior is required to do, and enhance your manager’s overall work. This also demonstrates that you are capable of taking initiative without needing direction from your superiors every step of the way, which may result in earning greater responsibility within your role down the line.

At its core, managing up involves being helpful, anticipating your boss’ needs, and knowing how to discuss problems so you can work through them together. Not only does this show that you are attentive in your role, but it also demonstrates your willingness to go out of your way for the benefit of the team. In the long run, managing up will allow you to create value for your boss and your company, inspire and motivate others, and become a better leader on your own, all of which can help you advance in your career.

How To Improve Your Leadership Skills

Managing up is just one way of improving your leadership skills in the workplace. To become a successful leader, you should be prepared to take risks, establish personal and professional goals, build a wide network, become a strong communicator, and be able to work both independently and collaboratively.

You can actively improve upon these leadership abilities by simply working in a professional setting. Efficiently completing daily tasks and then taking on additional responsibilities can go a long way in honing this important skill set, though this often can take a long time and involve a certain amount of trial and error.

Earning a bachelor’s degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Leadership, is another effective way of developing your leadership skills and advancing in your career. This degree is designed to teach students important skills related to management, ethics, strategic thinking, and organizational culture, preparing you for the unique challenges associated with being a leader in today’s complex, global economy. Tailored programs also give students the opportunity to explore the various leadership styles used most commonly in business today, and help determine which resonates best with your unique personality, industry, and career goals.

Most BS in Leadership programs provide students a comprehensive base of knowledge and skills that can be leveraged across multiple industries and positions. These focus areas vary by institution; the BS in Leadership program at Northeastern, for example, offers courses designed to strengthen various skill sets in areas such as:

  • Psychology
  • Writing
  • Negotiation
  • Finance
  • Ethical Decision Making
  • Logic
  • Organizational Behavior

By developing a thorough knowledge of the many facets of leadership, it is possible to both improve your effectiveness in your current position while also preparing yourself for the unique challenges and opportunities that may occur in the future.

Becoming a Leader

Leadership skills are crucial for any professional, regardless of their position, and despite what your official title at work may convey, there are steps you can take to improve your ability to effectively manage teams and add value to your business over time.

Managing up can be a great way to exercise your leadership skills within your current position, but if you’re looking to improve at an even faster rate, consider the benefits of completing an undergraduate degree in leadership. With the skills you will develop in the classroom, combined with your real-world experience, you will be able to show your employer that you have what it takes to be the next great leader.

Why Northeastern

Northeastern University’s Bachelor of Science in Leadership program leverages students’ varied career interests and prepares them for the challenges and opportunities they will face as professionals. Led by talented faculty, the courses explore the key leadership topics including management, ethics, strategic thinking, and organizational culture.

The program is flexible and designed to prepare students with various professional aspirations to succeed in a variety of industries. Graduates may wish to pursue roles as managers, supervisors, directors, human resources managers, or other similar leadership positions.

In addition to learning from industry-aligned faculty, students are also offered the unique opportunity to engage in integrated experiential learning by becoming a part of Northeastern’s renowned network of employers and organizations. These opportunities allow students to exercise their leadership skills through hands-on learning opportunities and research projects that are designed to cultivate strong leaders.

Learn more about the Bachelor of Science in Leadership degree on the Northeastern University program page.


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About Kelsey Miller

Kelsey Miller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Northeastern University’s Bachelor’s Completion Programs Blog.