Managing up: How to communicate effectively with your boss

Having a healthy relationship with your manager makes life much easier, not to mention it’s good for job satisfaction and your career. And while not all managers are tyrants a la The Devil Wears Prada, some managers don’t make it easy to work with or for them. No matter what your boss’s shortcomings are, the relationship between you is a very important one. While it would be amazing to develop a lifelong friendship with your boss, remember you are not looking for a friend.

Yes, you want a courteous and friendly relationship built on trust. Yes, you want a champion to fall back on when times are stressful. Yes, you would like a mentor who you learn from. But ultimately what you need from your boss is an effective and productive working relationship through which you grow and learn. To successfully achieve this, you need a strategic ‘manage up’ plan.

From the beginning establish a communication routine that helps you understand what your boss expects of you. For example, at the end of a meeting ask – ‘Can you clarify that this is what you need me to do and what is the timeframe for completion?’ Getting clarity on what is expected puts you both on the same page, especially if your boss asks for one thing but often expects something else.

Develop periodic check-ins to inform him/her of how the project is going and to give an update on what you have achieved. Regular check-ins mean that you never get to the end of a project or task only to realise you haven’t done what is expected. Regular open and communication channels put you in the position to course correct on an ongoing basis.

Always deliver on your promises. If you are being asked to do a project or take part in something that you feel you cannot do because of lack of experience or knowledge, be straight up. Go directly to your manager and outline your concerns. Be direct about the support/help that you need. If, on the other hand, you feel overwhelmed or that you have too much work on your desk, ask your boss to prioritise your tasks. Quickly outline what you have to do and ask your boss to identify the most important, second most important and so on. If you feel that you have both a lack of time, and do not have the skills needed to do the project, sit down and figure out your core issues. Go to your boss and explain what you can do within the scope of the project. Then explain what you need help with. You might say, ‘I can do this part of the project and I started working on it. As I got further into it I realised that I need help in some areas. Could you help me?’

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Always ask questions but avoid escalating problems to your boss too quickly. Before you go to your manager try solving the problem yourself. When you arrive at the table asking for help, be clear on exactly what you need. Be proactive not reactive. Always look to the next steps in a project, attempt to identify what you see as potential inefficiencies and constantly gather information that puts you in a position of understanding. By doing this over time, your boss will see you as supportive and trustworthy.

Get to know your managers work style and figure out how she likes updates, feedback and to communicate. For example, is she formal and organised in her approach to work, or is she informal and intuitive. Does she like to get written updates or does she prefer data and statistics, or perhaps she is more visual. If so, when you have a meeting collate the information you need to talk about in the format that works best. If you disagree with your boss, do so calmly and with clarity. Remember this is not a friendship, it is a professional working relationship. Detach your personal feelings from your professional role and clinically outline your concerns.

The majority of us work with a boss and learning how to manage their expectations is a crucial part of designing a career that you love. Use the tips above to communicate in a way that works and is beneficial for both of you. Remember, if you don’t design a career that you love, somebody else will do it for you. And you may not like their version.

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