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Managing Up – the Emotionally Intelligent Way

Managing up is about using the traits of a good manager to help bring out the best in you as an employee. When done effectively, managing up makes your manager’s job easier as well as yours. Managing up with emotional intelligence will also help you create advocates for your career and build your manager’s trust and confidence in you.

The Harvard Business Review defines managing up as “Being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and your company.” Since managing up seems to come up often in my coaching sessions, I wanted to provide more insight on the subject and offer an easy-to-use guide to help develop this invaluable skill.

Why is Managing Up Important? Because managing up nurtures your manager’s sense of trust and confidence in you, it also serves as a relationship builder between you. A strong relationship with your manager boosts your engagement and productivity. Ultimately, managing up invigorates the relationship with new energy because it results in you both being on the same page. If you can successfully master this skill, you’ll become invaluable to your manager and put them firmly in your corner when the time comes to consider people for promotions.

Here are the key steps to managing up with emotional intelligence.

Understand and Anticipate Your Manager’s Needs

The easiest way to get people to care about what you care about is to understand and care about what they care about. Learn your manager’s goals and priorities, and align your work with their needs. Clear communication is the lifeblood of any relationship. Learn how your manager likes to work, and figure out how to adjust to their management and communication style and preferences. The following questions will help you in this area.

  • What’s important to my manager?

  • How do they like to work?

  • What can I do to make their job easier?

Let Your Manager Know How You Like to be Managed Communication is a two-way street. Just as it is important to understand your manager and how they like to work, you should also let them know how they can get the best out of you.

Let them know what motivates you. Let them know the ways you like to work and communicate. I believe it is both people’s responsibility in the relationship to communicate accurately what their motivations are and best ways of communication that encourage success.

One helpful exercise is to have a meeting focused on communicating to your manager what motivates you at work. This is also an opportunity to let your manager know how you like to give and receive certain types of information, what energizes you, and what drains you of energy. The information you gain will enable you to understand what you have in common and where there are differences (gap analysis, in other words) and ultimately to determine the best ways to close those gaps.

Proactively Provide Updates & Feedback

Cultivate the habit of being a proactive communicator and keeping your manager informed with status updates on your work. This can be particularly helpful with managers who tend to micromanage. By providing frequent updates on your projects and their status before they even ask, you go a long way in building trust.

Additionally, I recommend that direct reports provide feedback to their managers on their assessment of the company, the work they do, what the manager does well, and what the manager can improve upon. Just as managers provide performance reviews on their direct reports, feedback is a two-way street.

Providing feedback is an important step in managing up and it needs to be done correctly and thoughtfully. If your manager requests feedback from you, offer it honestly. If you have suggestions on how they can improve, frame this feedback politely and make sure your points are reasonable and constructive. Just as you want feedback given to you from a caring viewpoint, put yourself in a coach’s mindset rather than a judge’s mindset when doing this. Additionally, you don’t always need to wait to be prompted for feedback. Sometimes it’s a good idea to initiate a conversation with your manager to provide helpful feedback. Offer solutions and focus on going forward rather than expressing negative emotions and dwelling on the problem.

Make sure to provide positive feedback, too. Tell your manager when they’ve done something that was particularly helpful to you. This shows that not only do you want them to recognize your efforts, but you also recognize theirs.

Solicit and be Open to Feedback

Since communication is a two-way street, a good managing-up tip is asking for feedback from your manager about your performance and how you can improve. It shows them that you are serious about growing and developing, and demonstrates that you have the emotional maturity to take criticism in stride without being defensive or sensitive.

If you view your manager as someone you can learn from, and as a resource to help you improve, initiating a conversation with them about your areas for growth and development will go a long way in building the relationship and gaining trust.

Focus on asking tough questions about yourself to gain more self-awareness. Then take the feedback seriously as areas you need to work on, rather than getting defensive and emotional.

Here are some good questions to ask your manager to help with this area:

  • What are my strengths related to my goals and your expectations?

  • What are my development needs related to my goals and your expectations?

  • What do I need to start doing that I’m not currently doing?

  • What do I need to stop doing that I’m currently doing?

  • What do I need to continue doing that I’m currently doing?

Be Effective with Crucial Conversations It takes true emotional intelligence to know how to discuss problems honestly and disagree constructively with others, especially your direct manager. Conducting these crucial conversations effectively is a special leadership skill that can contribute significantly to career success.

A crucial conversation with your manager might cover topics such as:

  • Letting them know you made a mistake or there is a problem

  • Holding them accountable for something they committed to doing

  • Asking for a pay raise

  • Requesting to work from home

  • Addressing behavior and/or communication style that needs to improve

This article on Crucial Conversations Using EQ provides a more detailed guide on the best practices for using emotional intelligence in crucial conversations.

Tell them About your Career Goals An employee of mine once told me that I hold the keys to their future. That’s a lot of responsibility as a leader, and one I take seriously. The reality is your manager is an important resource to assisting you in getting to where you want to go in your career. Initiate communication about your career aspirations and ask your manager for guidance on how to make them a reality. This can lead to a mentorship-type of relationship where your manager becomes your biggest advocate within the organization.

Be Accountable for Your Actions and Decisions Learn to be accountable for your actions, behaviors, decisions, and mistakes. Don’t try to cover things up or blame others. Instead, be humble and bring forward a solution or communicate what you learned and will do differently. If you own up to what you did and present a solution to correct the mistake in the future, there is not too much a manager can be upset about. This is a disarming technique to help move past the issue. If we don’t own up for our mistakes then we aren’t being accountable and often make something small turn into something much bigger, while also diminishing our manager’s trust and confidence.

Moving Forward

Work on all these items in concert to manage up effectively. Keep a log of how and when you are addressing each item, note the feedback or response you get and record how things are changing. Hopefully over time you will see clear signs that your relationship with your manager is improving.

Managing up with emotional intelligence means doing your job well, understanding how your manager works, knowing their priorities, and proactively using upward communication to keep them in the loop. Managing up helps create stronger relationships, which contributes to a better work environment and keeps you more engaged. This positively impacts both your and your manager’s careers—so everyone wins.


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