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adrw // Andrew Alexander

Managing Upwards

Tech3 min read

If you're not working for yourself, then you have a manager.

And while a manager's job is to manage you. You also have a role in managing upwards.

This tactic can be thought of as taking extreme ownership over the relationship you have with your manager.

While they may be a good target to complain about, and culturally this may be largely an acceptable disposition to hold; not managing upwards is an abdication. You are surrendering like a victim to however they treat you and whoever they are as a person. Any slight kept in your memories for the next venting session with colleagues, friends, or spouse.

So, what does managing upwards look like if you want to take ownership over the outcomes of your manager relationship?

First, it means observing and accepting the personality, strengths, flaws, history, biases, and preferences of your manager. In every interaction, take the opportunity to consiously soak in information about who they are wholistically. This practice will help you build a more accurate mental model of how they act and will react in different circumstances.

Similar to managing a meeting of a board of directors, take to heart the rule of least surprise. Communicate frequently and early so your manager is not surprised when you submit a PR that doesn't line up with the sprint or is shocked when they see you booked vacation for next week last minute. Many people can get flustered by suddenly encountered deviations from their expectations. Avoiding unnecessary surprises and guiding your manager through any necessary first conversations to introduce a topic better acknowledge their emotional limtiations as a human, and often avoid blow ups or loss of trust.

If you've gotten off on the wrong foot, first impressions are hard to fix. Yet, not impossible. For example, take this tactic which time and again has tended to start to soften managers who may have a less trusting or prickly demeanor towards me. In these cases, I've started to ask them earnestly about their role, stress they may be under, and lastly ask if there's anything I can do to help with all the burdens on their plate.

Often, the manager will blush and start to let down their guard at an underling taking notice of their emotional needs and offering to take on more work to relief their responsibilities. 9 times out of 10, the task or chore I've been given has been minimal like setting up a retro meeting, mentoring a junior colleague, or taking over writing the team newsletter this time. A small amount of extra work, often soft skills and non-coding, can end up going a long way to build trust and goodwill.

Depending on the manager, once they have extensive trust and goodwill towards you, you will often get a longer leash. In practice, this looks like less convincing required for internal side projects like code cleanup, refactors, shared library contributions, or vacation approval. You can even end up having the manager openly offer to go to bat for you against HR, expense report auditors, or other teams who may be causing unnecessary hassles.

Getting your manager on your side has many benefits outside of the obvious impact on promotion.

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