How to Build a Durable Relationship With Your Manager

A lot of us allow ourselves to be passively managed at work, even in roles that we really like. Managing up is important though, and it’s not just about getting ahead.

9
 min read
Published: 
April 29, 2022
Team working together with manager
NAVIGATION
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Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring On Deck alums Ming Lu and Vik Duggal. If you’re an early-stage founder, angel investor, or exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs - you’ll be in great company.

Note: If you’re an early-stage founder anywhere from pre-idea through pre-seed, consider applying to On Deck Founders.

Note: This article is adapted from a live discussion for the On Deck community featuring Josefin Graebe. If you’re an early-stage founder, scaling founder, or senior exec interested in joining our community, consider applying to one of our programs.

A lot of us allow ourselves to be passively managed at work, even in roles that we really like. 

We clock in, our boss tells us what to do, we deliver, rinse, repeat. Worst case scenario, this allows resentment to mount until somebody decides to quit. In almost all cases, this environment limits everyone’s productivity, creativity, and growth. 

Passive behavior in the workplace happens for a lot of reasons, but one of the biggest culprits is being conditioned to view your manager as an authority figure, as opposed to somebody that you’re collaborating with towards a goal. This doesn’t mean that your manager has no authority over you. However, it’s useful to remember that they’re also your coworker

Remembering what it means to be co-workers. It’s obvious, but it’s easy to forget! 

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It’s a truism that’s been lost in many workplaces: a company is a group of people who are working towards a common goal. And that goal is more than just making a profit. 

  • Tesla employees are helping the world transition to sustainable energy.
  • Loyal employees are developing life-extension drugs for dogs. 
  • On Deck employees are accelerating people’s careers. 

Like we said above—this doesn’t mean that your boss doesn’t have authority over you. It does, however, mean that your relationship is more about achieving the company’s goals than it is one person having power over another. You both are there to collaborate on solving a problem. 

Instead of thinking of your manager as just an authority figure, it might be helpful to think of them as an architect creating a blueprint to help you do the best you can at your job. In one sense, the architect is further up the hierarchy than the engineer. But both roles are vital in creating the final product. 

Managing up (…and why that might not be the best term). 

sticky notes on corkboard

Enter managing up. 

Personally, I don’t love the term “managing up.” To me, “managing up” suggests an unhealthy power imbalance, competitiveness, or even an incompetent manager. There seems to be some consensus about this language problem, even implicitly. 

Most articles about managing up start with big, bold warnings about what managing up isn’t, as opposed to what it is. This one, from California Merced, was informative, but also goes to show the power of framing. The piece begins with a list of items of what managing up isn’t before explaining what it is and diving into more tactical advice: 

  • [It is] NOT supervising or overseeing your boss
  • [It is] NOT going above your boss’s head to have your voice heard
  • [It is] NOT evaluating or judging your boss’s management or leadership style
  • [It is] NOT about changing or developing your boss into a better manager or leader
  • [It is] NOT about challenging decisions or actions your boss takes

In reality, this process—whatever you want to call it—should be about creating a healthy, positive relationship between you and your boss so both of you can be effective professionals. 

From Mary Abbajay’s Fireside Chat about managing up. 

In her Fireside Chat for the On Deck Product Management Fellowship (ODPM), Mary Abbajay, author of the best-selling Managing Up: How to Move Up, Win at Work, and Succeed with Any Type of Boss is the president of Careerstone Group, LLC, describes “managing up” like this: “It’s about relationship management so your manager, you, and your organization can find success.”

Of course, it’s also possible that you have a bad manager. It happens to the best of us, and it also happens at some of the best workplaces. Sometimes the situation just can’t be improved, and that requires its own toolkit. (For the purposes of this piece, we won’t be getting into truly toxic work environments.)

Empathy is at the core of managing up. 

Here’s how Heather Yurovsky, one of our founding careers coaches here at On Deck, likes to think about managing up: 

“A key component to managing up is anticipating the needs and responses of your boss or those above you. With this mindset, you’re required to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes to fully picture what’s important to them and the stressors they are experiencing. This also helps you better understand how to best communicate with that person to address your own needs at work.”

Mary Abbajay echoes this sentiment, “The key goal is to figure out what everyone’s operating system is. How do you operate? How does your boss operate? How does your organization operate? What is the gap in the middle, and how can you bridge it?”

She breaks the “professional operating system” down into six areas of focus: 

  • Communication style. Mary encourages people to ask questions like: What is your manager’s communication style? What is your communication style? She recommends that people assess the gap between your communication style and your manager’s. How can you make the relationship as easy and stress-free as possible?

  • Work style. Here, Mary recommends that people focus on questions like: what’s your manager’s work style? Are they risk averse, or are they risk-takers? Are they extremely creative?

  • Pace. What’s their time orientation? How quickly do they expect work to be done? Are they punctual?

  • Task oriented or relationship oriented. Is your manager all business, or more focused on relationships?

  • Goals and motivations. Find out what motivates your boss. What do they want to accomplish in their career? She cautions people here not to become judgmental–some managers may just be in it for the money, or even to get recognition. This information is only valuable insofar as it helps direct how you should approach your relationship with them.

  • The climate and culture of your workplace. Finally, Mary says that people should pay attention to your office culture. Why do people get promoted? What does your manager’s boss optimize for?

Another core piece of professional empathy is understanding that not everyone is prepared to manage. Sometimes, organizations have flawed hierarchies, which can create friction. In her talk, Mary describes three common scenarios that managers often find themselves in: 

  1. They were promoted based on technical skills, not managerial acumen.

  2. They were never trained to be a manager.

  3. The only way they were able to move up in their career was through moving into a more managerial role, but they don’t want to be a manager. 

She reminds us that, “When you have these three dynamics at play, you’re not always going to get a good boss. It’s an imperfect system.” 

Communication takes effort.

Let’s talk a little bit more about communication. During a live session for the On Deck Chief of Staff Fellowship (ODCoS), Leah Cohen-Shohet, Chief Business Officer of GlossGenius and ODF8 Fellow, gave a great list of managing up communication DOs:

  • Establish the right communication habits. 
  • Align on expectations. 
  • Be constructive.
  • Be sincere and transparent.
  • Address concerns bilaterally.

But how do you get there? A big piece of this is communicating with context

Communicating with context helps everyone. 

In a viral thread about communication, Wes Kao, the co-founder of Maven, posits that one of the biggest factors holding people back in being a good employee is not providing enough context:

In other words, they’re not good at communicating. 

Overcommunicating is always going to be better than under communicating, even if it’s uncomfortable at first. You don’t have to provide a brain dump in Slack every chance you get, but you should strive to provide as much context as possible. 

Here are some ideas from Wes’s thread:

  • Be descriptive. Instead of saying something like, “Here’s the updated link,” instead say, “Here’s the updated pitch. I incorporated your feedback & included a change summary below. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll plan on shipping tomorrow morning.”

  • Be specific and explicit about your needs. Don’t assume that your manager can read your mind.

  • Whenever possible, make requests, not complaints. Wes gives a great example of this in her thread. Instead of saying, “The new ad is updated in the Google Doc. It’s published in FB, but not running,” instead say, “Please approve the new ad copy (screenshot below). Once you approve, I’ll publish and go live on FB.”

  • If you’re sharing an update, state that it’s an update.

  • Show your thought process on decisions, including recommendations. 

More communication DOs when managing up. 

Some other (easy!) ways to improve communication between you and your manager are:

  • Always ask for clarification if you need it. This also applies to bigger picture topics like how decisions are made or the scope of your role.

  • Don’t get caught up in authenticity. If you have a manager who’s very friendly–be friendly! If it’s more buttoned up and all business, then be buttoned up. Don’t allow yourself to get trapped by what’s “most comfortable” or “most authentic” if the sacrifice is trivial. If it’s not trivial, that might be a sign that you’re in the wrong workplace.

  • Make sure how your manager is measuring your success is clear. Set realistic expectations for the work you can deliver, but also push back if what’s expected of you isn’t realistic.

  • Take ownership of your mistakes, and never lie about them.

  • Giving feedback gracefully is as important as knowing how to receive it.

  • Avoid gossip. Gossip can be tempting. We’re not going to lie to you, it definitely can be fun. When it comes to office politics though, it’s always more trouble than it’s worth. 

Why managing up is important. 

Clocking in and out might seem like it’s the easier route at the workplace, but it can often make our lives harder in the long run. Managing up doesn’t only make your manager’s life easier, it also unlocks opportunities. Here are some closing thoughts from Heather Yurovsky:  

“When you manage up well, your boss will develop trust faster. This trust—and rapport—equates to more opportunities for career growth, such as the chance to work on new projects or receive more management exposure. By taking advantage of these opportunities, you can use these skill builders as the foundation for a raise or promotion. And because you have been managing up so well, your boss is more likely to approve or advocate for that raise or promotion. It all works together to continue to grow your career.” 

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