Manager in hand

As you look down from your elevated position as manager you might think there is more than enough work there to keep you busy. But have you ever thought about looking upwards? Good management is a two-way process -up as well as down. A theme so often missing from books on management is the essential skill of managing upwards.

Managers don’t just manage other people, they are managed themselves. This is true no matter how senior in an organisation the manager might become.

Managing your manager isn’t about doing their job, it’s about enabling them to do their job in the most effective way. It’s about getting the most out of the management function, the most support, understanding and trust, which in turn allows you to be more effective in your own role.

The old adage “treat others as you would like to be treated” is a useful starting point. People often forget that managers are human; they have good days and bad days and can be sensitive about certain issues. Don’t assume your manager has all the answers. Also, never assume your manager is all powerful; they will have constraints just as you have and these need to be recognised.

The problems with managers can be many and various. The following characteristics of the way managers behave may be troublingly familiar to you.

  • Distrusts, interferes and doesn’t delegate.
  • Takes all the credit and none of the blame.
  • Fails to consult and inform.
  • Overloads you with work.
  • Refuses to listen.
  • Has inconsistent or unrealistic expectations.
  • Dominates and is quick to criticise.
  • Weak and ineffectual.
  • Absent or unsupportive.

Only the truly unlucky will have been on the receiving end of all these traits. What can be done about it? It is important to take an active approach. There are things that can be done to minimise the effects or, better still, gain greater benefit from good management.

Your manager will necessarily be concerned with more strategic aspects of the organisation. It can sometimes be hurtful if your manager lacks interest in the minutiae you have been slaving over for months. They just want to know if it works. It is not a manager’s job to concern themselves with too much detail or allow themselves to be diverted by minor issues. If you expect this of them they will not see you as mature enough to handle management roles yourself and your influence and ability to manage your manager will be eroded.

To manage effectively the relationship you will need to understand your manager:

  • What is their preferred management style?
  • What are their priorities?
  • What are their constraints or pressures?

You will also need to manage the communication:

  • What information will they need to know and at what level?
  • What is their preferred form of communication (meetings, briefing, e-mail)?
  • How often should you keep them informed?
  • How much time will they need to be able to make certain decisions?
  • What do I need to know from my manager and how often (what do I expect of them)?

The bondaries and expectations on both sides should be made explicit. The best way to influence any relationship is to be organised, present sound ideas and have considered logical solutions to any problems. If your manager sees you as useful, credible and supportive they are likely to want to be guided by you.

The single most important factor in managing a manager is plain old honesty. It will, of course, be obvious if staff are trying to undermine or manipulate a manager. Hiding problems is rarely constructive. Even worse than springing a surprise on your manager yourself is allowing them to hear it from others, especially publicly.

And staff need to be confident about themselves. They do not have to agree all the time. It is perfectly legitimate to sometimes say “no” (preferably accompanied by a well-reasoned argument rather than a stroppy dismissal).

Understand a manager’s role and objectives and use this in ways that help in achieving their goals.

Promote respect and confidence; it is more likely to result in greater autonomy.

Many of the qualities that will assist in managing a manager are the same ones you look for in the people you supervise. Just as you will have expectations of reliability, punctuality, completing work as agreed and on time, so your manager relies on you to be efficient and trustworthy. Try to anticipate their needs, don’t waste their time and keep them informed. Don’t try to hide bad news and under no circumstances should you pick a fight with your manager because things haven’t turned out the way you wanted – you will lose. The rest is easy!

Des Kelly is director of the National Care Forum; Claire Smart is purchasing manager, Gloucestershire social services.

Our managementality panel includes:

John Belcher, chief executive, Anchor Housing Trust; John Burton, independent consultant; Christine Doorly, regional director, National Care Standards Commission; Sheena Doyle, independent consultant; Andrew McCulloch, chief executive, Mental Health Foundation; Daphne Obang, director of social services and housing, Bracknell Forest; Kathryn Stone, director, Voice UK; Martin Willis, programme director, Inlogov, Birmingham University.

Top Tips

  • Complete the work delegated to you.
  • Try to anticipate your manager’s needs, priorities and expectations.
  • Present yourself as working “with” rather than “for” your manager.
  • Try to understand your manager – put yourself in their shoes. 

Rubbish Tips

  • If you are left alone it means you are doing a good job.
  • The job of the manager is to manage subordinates not to worry about superiors.
  • Managers prefer it if you provide plenty of information and lots of detail about what you are doing. Pass everything on.
  • Assume they are perfect, the enemy or non-human.   

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