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Andrew Arkley|December 18, 2023

Managing Upwards: What It Means And How To Do It

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Has your boss or line manager said you need to do more ‘managing upwards’? If you’re not sure what that means or how to do it, no problem – we’ll bring you up to speed.

Managing upwards may sound like yet more unnecessary business jargon, but hear us out – it’s a valuable skill and could boost your career progression.

In a sense, it is different from more traditional management (or ‘managing down’), based on a typical company hierarchy. In other words, where the board manages down to directors, who in turn dictate to the managers, who lead the juniors, and so on.

But upward management tends to be much more nuanced and sometimes, more subtle than a pure role reversal. After all – at many companies, if you try to start barking orders at the boss all day, or delegating lots of different tasks to your line manager, you’ll be in trouble!

What does managing upwards mean?

While definitions can vary, broadly speaking, managing up is when a more junior staff member or direct report takes extra steps to add value, by making a superior’s role easier. 

It involves effectively managing and influencing relationships with your superiors or the higher-level management in a job. Sometimes, that involves managing or even improving some of their work.

That might mean proactively coming up with new ideas they can use, but on other occasions you may need to remind superiors to do something they forgot about.

Here is an example of managing upwards. Imagine you’re in a junior role, but you are the project manager for an important piece of client work.

Also on the project, you have the support of more senior staff – let’s say a subject expert and a company director. Outside of the project, day-to-day at the company, the director would typically manage ‘down’ to you, i.e. they might give you orders, instructions and training.

But as the project manager, you’re responsible for keeping this piece of work running on time for the client.

You need to keep track of what’s required for the project to succeed. That might mean that on occasion, you need to ask the director to do something by a certain deadline, in a certain way and potentially, point out if they fall short.

For some junior staff, that’s tricky – it takes courage and confidence.

It involves understanding the priorities, expectations and communication styles of those in positions of authority and aligning your own work or communication to meet those needs.

Successfully managing upwards requires a keen awareness of dynamics at the company, anticipating the preferences of seniors and adapting your approach if needed. Managing upwards is a soft skill, but also a strategic one.

Managing up – how to do it

Here’s our step-by-step guide to managing upwards:

  1. Communicate clearly: Provide regular updates on your projects, confirming when the team completes milestones and highlighting any challenges. Ensure messages are concise and tailored to senior staff, whether through written reports or in-person briefings.
  2. Anticipate issues: Try to proactively identify potential issues. Suggest solutions when presenting a problem, showcasing your ability to think ahead and contribute to the problem-solving, rather than expecting senior staff to find all the answers.
  3. Convey trust: Build up a reliable reputation. Meet deadlines, deliver on promises, and show a strong work ethic – this increases the chances of senior staff responding well when you start managing up.
  4. Align on goals: Explain how your attempts at upward management are contributing to the company’s goals, if you encounter resistance. Aligning your work in this way underscores your commitment to the objectives.
  5. Show initiative: Try to take on additional responsibilities that build on your CV skills, hobbies and interests. Contribute ideas, but not only when someone asks for them, illustrating your commitment to the team and company’s success.
  6. Seek feedback: Ask senior staff for advice on your management style when the time is right. Use this information to continuously improve and refine your approach to managing upwards.

Upward management isn’t only for juniors – after all, most people have a boss or superior, one way or another.

Those are the ‘dos’ but there are a few ‘don’ts’ too. Take care not to get involved in office politics, be disingenuous or cover up mistakes when managing up to superiors, for example.

Don’t be blunt or rude, even if that’s how managers have treated you in the past. Managing up still requires respect for those in more senior positions.

Benefits of upward management

Simply put, sometimes at work you need to manage upwards just to get the job done. Senior staff are not perfect and on occasion, you may have to manage up a little to complete tasks.

But longer term, managing up tends to support your career progress. By establishing a positive rapport with higher-ups and contributing to shared objectives, you can boost your personal career trajectory.

Those who excel at managing upwards often become influential within the company faster than others. It’s a trait common in valuable team members and leaders.

Companies that encourage and embrace upwards management often see better, stronger communication and collaboration throughout the organisation. As information flows more clearly and transparently both up and down the hierarchy, it can improve decision-making and overall efficiency.

When you’re asking for a promotion and trying to make the case for taking on additional responsibility… Give some examples of your upward management skills.

Show that you understand what more senior staff do to achieve company targets. It’s a good way to demonstrate your readiness for a broader remit. 

Final thoughts: Managing upwards

We hope this guide has answered any questions you have around what managing up means and how to do it – without any superiors thinking that you’re stepping out of line!

If you can provide a concrete example of achievements at work using upwards management then they’ll look great on your CV. Here’s how to write a management CV and don’t forget to use the STAR method to explain your achievements in the right context.

For our full range of guides on succeeding in your current role, or applying for a job, check out our blog.

Want to manage upwards but need a new job first? We’re experts at writing CVs, cover letters and LinkedIn profiles – please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

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