What They Didn’t Teach You in Grad School: Managing Up

Managing up is the idea that the supervisory relationship is reciprocal.  If you look out for your supervisor, they will be more understanding and supportive of you.  It’s about knowing your boss’ style, what’s important to them, and using that knowledge to get the outcome you want.

The art of managing up isn’t something we’ve done particularly well teaching in graduate preparation programs.  You may have picked it up in a practicum course or you may’ve had the luck of the draw with a professional mentor or supervisor.  Either way, learning to manage up entails a critical set of skills necessary to advance and be successful in your career.

An essential skill in “managing up” is being proactive. It’s about three things:

  1. Anticipating potential problems;
  2. Communicating and mitigating; and
  3. Providing solutions and options.

Let’s start with number 1, anticipating.  Supervisors hate surprises.  They.  Hate. Surprises.  Part of your job is to anticipate when a potential problem may occur: a missed deadline, a botched execution of a task or program, an impending issue that has the potential to get bigger, etc. etc.  The better you get at anticipating potential problems, the more prepared you will be.  It’s also imperative to know what’s important to your boss. It’s imperative to know your boss’ goals and objectives.  It’s imperative to know what they’ll be held accountable for.  You’re here, in part, to make them look good.

Number 2 is about communicating what you’re anticipating and any steps or action you have already taken to mitigate it.  When you see a potential problem, don’t just sit on it.  Begin to prepare some actions for future potentialities.  Prepare your supervisor for it.  That doesn’t mean you should  communicate every potential problem like Chicken Little, but making sure your supervisor is updated until you reach the tipping point on a problem is crucial.  If you can solve it yourself, do it, and communicate the story of it afterwards on how you will keep it from happening again.  If you can’t, seek out consultations.  Resist the urge to hide problems thinking they’re always a reflection on you.  If it is something you created yourself… acknowledge it, apologize and move forward.

Number 3 should be happening concurrently with number 2.  Don’t just plop a problem on your supervisor and expect them to fix it for you.  Provide solutions.  Provide options.  It’s possible that your supervisor will have more information or more options that will help.  In part, this is a smart strategy to refocus the attention of the conversation away from the problem or mistake and towards how to fix it.  It also shows your supervisor that you are on top of things.

So.  This oversimplifies, but this is how it should go:

Here is the problem I foresee coming.
Here are the actions I have taken to mitigate it.
Here are the solutions I propose to fix it.
Here is how we can keep it from happening in the future.

Do that and I promise you will be more successful in your career.  Oh!  And this doesn’t just apply to supervisors, but colleagues as well.  It helps build strong relationships.

Anticipate.  Mitigate.  Communicate.  Solve.

Image credit: thumbs up by Sarah Reid

2 thoughts on “What They Didn’t Teach You in Grad School: Managing Up

  1. Such great advice–maybe this should be given out by HR offices whenever someone new starts.

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