Managing up: Three ways to handle the boss

Suck it up: your boss may like sycophancy but it can hurt your team’s performance

Bootlicking will alienate your colleagues and affect output

It is a common misconception that managing upwards is just about manipulating your superior for your personal gain. In reality, the relationship between a boss and their subordinates is one of symbiosis; senior managers rely as much on their front-line staff to know which executive decisions to make.
By understanding your boss’s style of management, keeping them informed, and providing plenty of alternative options, you will be able to maximise your team’s chances for success and manage to keep colleagues on-side.


Power gaps can often open up between managers and their staff in hierarchical companies. Those in junior roles may feel discouraged from passing inconvenient information up the chain of command, for fear that they will be held accountable. “Whether things are going well, or not so well, you’re building mutual trust and integrity if you keep your supervisor in the know,” Spherion division president Sandy Mazur told Forbes.
If it’s your responsibility, anticipate your boss’s reaction to minimise the fallout. “Some subordinates deal with a good-news-only boss by finding indirect ways to get the necessary information to him or her, such as a management information system,” say John Gabarro and John Kotter in Managing Your Boss. “Others see to it that potential problems, whether in the form of good surprises or bad news, are communicated immediately.”


If you’re the best placed person to identify a problem, you’re probably best placed to find the solution. And helping your bosses to succeed is a better strategy for promotion than sucking up. “Always have a Plan B or second best alternative when trying to reach an outcome, and aim for a win-win”, advises Wharton Business School in its pamphlet Ten Upward Management Skills. Project management adviser Lonnie Pacelli told the FT that the best business meetings with his bosses were ones where he would “frame up the options, provide facts to support each option, and provide a recommendation.”


It can be easy to rationalise sycophancy to ourselves. We like to think that massaging the boss’s ego will produce a closer working relationship, benefitting the team as a whole. Worse still, brown-nosing is widely seen as a sure way to climb the career ladder. Indeed, a survey of more than 1,000 senior managers and chief executives by James Westphal and Ithai Stern found that most feel that “ingratiatory behaviour” towards your boss has more of a chance of getting you an executive position than any other tactic.
The problem is that, while colleagues will dislike you, your boss may actually encourage such behaviour, perhaps unconsciously, so taking advantage could damage your team’s competitiveness as a result.

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