Managing your relationship with your bosses can be as important as tackling your task list. Tuning in to their preferences, communicating skillfully and earning their trust with stellar work can improve your chances at recognition, raises and promotions.
This mindset, known as managing up, is part of your job, said Gorick Ng, a career coach for Harvard students and the author of the coming book “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.” Here are some work habits that can foster positive relationships up the chain.
Paddle in the same direction. Make sure you and your manager are working toward a common objective, said Romy Newman, co-founder of the career website Fairygodboss. “You are making microdecisions all day on how to allocate your time,” she said, so review your to-do list with your manager and make sure your work priorities align.
Be sure of “what, how and by when.” Make sure you have all the details and due dates when your boss assigns something new, Ng said. Precision is more critical in remote work because it is not as easy to check in casually for clarification. “Ambiguity,” Ng cautioned, “is almost guaranteed to lead to misunderstandings.” And redoing work isn’t fun for anyone.
As part of any new assignment, suggest a time and type of check-in — for example, “I’ll take a stab at this by Friday and send you an outline for your feedback” or “Can we schedule a short status meeting for next week?”
By making the suggestion yourself, you can specify the time frame and format that allow you to do your best work. Check in before fully diving in, Ng said. “Don’t do the five-hour task before you know the five-minute version is on the right track,” he added.
Adapt to your manager’s style. Pay attention and deliver your work in the way your boss prefers, Newman said. Does your manager love to delve into the data with you? Get ready for that conversation. Does he or she prefer one-page write-ups to PowerPoint slide decks? Providing what your manager is looking for will make both of your jobs smoother.
Do it before being asked. Understanding your responsibilities and doing them at the highest level is one key to manager happiness, said Jameeka Green Aaron, a Navy veteran and chief information officer at United Legwear and Apparel, a company of about 750 employees.
She offered an example from her own team: “Way down on my list was checking in to see if all our employee laptops were up-to-date.” Before she got to that item, though, her asset manager came to her with a spreadsheet of the company’s laptops, noting which were near the end of their service life. He had also already researched new models to buy and found multiple price quotes for the replacements.
“I would have asked him about it, but the fact that he beat me to it is great,” Aaron said. “All I had to do was review and sign off.”
Bring recommendations. When asking your manager for guidance on an issue, explain the options you thought about, which you prefer and why. This shows you’ve done the research, understand the details and can smartly evaluate trade-offs. It also lets your boss choose among options rather than have to come up with them.
When you ask for feedback or a decision, specify a due date. “Don’t let them put off a decision for later, because later can turn into never,” Ng said, as your missive sinks into the e-correspondence morass.
Let your manager know that you need feedback by 5 p.m. Tuesday, for example, so you can send a report out at 5 p.m. Wednesday, or that if you don’t hear back by a certain (reasonable) time, you’ll move forward with your plan.
No surprises. Never surprise your boss, especially with bad news. The adage “Tell me early I’m your friend, tell me late I’m your critic” still holds, Newman said. If you are struggling or at risk of missing a deadline, bring your manager in as soon as possible and work together.
Build trust. Demonstrating your integrity and your dependability helps build a level of trust and will keep your manager from the urge to micromanage you. The personal values you exhibit are as important as the work you produce, Aaron said. This is especially important working remotely. Keep your boss apprised, Aaron said, as “it’s exhausting tracking people down.”
Managing up also means shielding your boss from unnecessary work. If you can’t get a task done, try to get a colleague to help rather than ask your boss to reassign the task. If you have a question, see if you can find the answer yourself first so you can let your manager know the avenues you tried.
Help your manager help you. Many professional development opportunities have fallen by the wayside as companies operate in emergency mode or with a leaner staff. One way to stretch yourself, Newman said, is to offer to take some work off your boss’s plate. Your boss will appreciate the break, and you may gain exposure to upper-level work or visibility.
Thanking your boss for giving you the chance to present at a meeting, for taking extra time to share guidance or for connecting you to his or her network will engender more of the same. The practice of encouraging behaviors you wish to see repeated, used by parents of young children, works for managers as well.
Help the team. Beyond technical skills and work habits, “my favorite employees show care and concern,” Aaron said. Empathetic team members “thinking about the world and people around them, and checking in with their co-workers,” she added, keep a team healthy in ways that a sole focus on excellence does not.
Understand that your boss may be stressed. Your boss may seem absent-minded, frenetic or inconsistent, Ng said, but that may be a result of other duties managing the team, interacting with higher-ups and doing his or her own work (not to mention work-from-home challenges).
“They may only start thinking about you and your work when you show up to the meeting, and stop thinking about you and your work when the meeting ends,” he said.
If your manager does seem anxious or overwhelmed, try asking, “How can I help you?” Newman said. “People forget how far that simple question can go to engender a connection.”
Changing negative behavior. Bad boss? Ng said to evaluate intent versus impact. Your manager may not realize the amount of stress that his or her short deadlines, vague emails, shifting work assignments, opacity in decision-making or last-minute changes in direction are causing you.
Communicate your concerns dispassionately, stating facts. “Our last three deadlines moved up unexpectedly” works better than “You always change deadlines at the last minute,” and explain how these actions hurt the quality, accuracy or other aspect of your work product.