Of all the skills and knowledge required to succeed in today’s workforce, managing upward – the ability to manage one’s supervisors, managers, and leadership team – is perhaps the least taught or practiced, yet it is one of the most valuable skills a knowledge worker can have. When done properly, it enables the worker to achieve work-life balance with less concern about job loss, and, therefore, is a significant factor in the ability to achieve a desired quality of life. At the same time, managing upward increases the value an employee brings to the organization by allowing the employee’s supervisors and managers to set realistic goals and expectations so they can better manage day-to-day operations as well as plan for the development of their workforce. In other words, when properly done, managing upward is actually good for the entire organization.

Before we get too far, let’s make sure we are using the same definition of “managing upward.” Managing upward does not mean using manipulative behavior to avoid doing work and offloading it to someone else. It also doesn’t mean “falling on one’s sword” or “taking one for the team,” nor does it imply that one must focus on one’s weaknesses and appear to be less competent than one’s peers. It doesn’t mean being either selfish or selfless. Managing upward means striking a balance in the give and take of your career, and participating in the management of operations by allowing your supervisors to see and understand your abilities and limitations, doing what is within your capabilities and continuing to grow as an employee.

When done appropriately, managing upward reveals your true value to your supervisors, enables you to identify areas in which you can – and perhaps must – improve, and helps you recognize the trade offs you will likely need to make to maintain your desired work-life balance. In coaching clients on managing upward, I have them focus on three key areas:

            1. Knowing your value
            2. Setting boundaries
            3. Using your support network

Knowing Your Value

A combination of professionalism, tact, and confidence is required to manage upwardly. These are all supported by being consciously aware of your value. Knowing your value enables you to feel more secure when managing upward since you will have determined the reasons why your supervisors do – and will continue to – find you to be an asset to the organization. Being consciously aware of your own value will reduce the anxiety and intimidation you will feel when managing upward as well as help you to build a more confident case for getting your needs met.

People (employees and consultants) are not paid for the time they put in at their desks. They are compensated for the value they bring to the organization. Your value is the sum of your knowledge, your abilities, and your creativity, and that value will continue to increase as you gain experience. You will want to define your value in terms of these three attributes as well as identify your limitations and the things you are doing to overcome them to continue growing as a professional. Anyone who knows their limitations and is working to overcome them is an asset to the organization, and this will ultimately help you advance in your career. Knowing your limitations is also helpful in setting realistic boundaries within which you can function successfully.

Setting Your Boundaries

In addition to knowing your value, you will also need to establish the boundaries within which you are willing and able to work. Boundaries define many things including how much we will allow our work to encroach into our personal time, how much growth we wish to achieve in a given time period, and how much we will let other things delay or disrupt that growth. Boundaries should reflect our values and limitations, and they always involve actively deciding on trade offs of gains and concessions. We cannot have everything we want, the way we want it, when we want it. Boundary setting, therefore, entails looking at your value system (i.e., what you value most in your life) as well as the concessions and trade offs you are willing to make or accept in order to respect the boundaries that you have drawn.

Once you have decided upon your boundaries, you need to make others aware of what they are, and how rigid or flexible they may be. When people know what your boundaries are, they will tend to respect them, as long as you are clear about where the boundaries lie and how flexible they are. Some of this information is conveyed verbally, but some is conveyed simply by what you do and how you act or react. It is crucial that you respect your own boundaries. The extent to which you violate your own boundaries will tell others how flexible that boundary is, and if someone sees you violate your own boundary, you should assume (s)he will feel it is okay to violate that boundary as well.

It is helpful to work on a professionally acceptable way to verbally define your boundaries so that others are not forced to guess where those boundaries lie. Creating a professionally acceptable way to declare your personal boundaries is not an easy task. You need to strike a balance between being assertive and being insubordinate. You need to make it clear when a boundary is very flexible, somewhat flexible, or inflexible. The amount of flexibility depends on the value you place on the activity the boundary protects. It is important to remain consistent with your boundaries and clearly convey them, however, your boundaries may change over the course of your career and lifetime, and when they do, you must let others know how they have changed.

A side note here: If you adhere to your boundaries and your supervisors do not respect them, you will know more definitively that your value system is inconsistent with that of your management team, and that can lead to other discussions for achieving the balance you seek. It may also lead you to the conclusion that you will not be able to achieve the goals you have set for yourself and your life while working for a particular employer, and that you may need to look for alternative employment in order to achieve your balance goals.
Respect yourself and your boundaries, and others will follow suit. Drawing your lines and either holding tightly to them or being more flexible will allow others to infer where your boundaries are and how flexible each of them is. Respecting your own values will greatly enhance contentedness in your life and profession, and it will actually increase – not decrease – the amount of respect you receive on the job.

Using Your Support Network

The third focal point is your external support network, and this should actually be your first stop in managing upward. You will not feel very confident in asserting your work-life balance needs if the important people in your life are telling you that it is a bad idea to do so. Sometimes people give us these signals unintentionally, and they can heighten the fear and frustration you may already be feeling. Fear and frustration are two emotions you will want to avoid as much as possible since managing upward provokes enough anxiety on its own, so it is important to openly discuss your ideas with the key people in your life. Your support network can also be invaluable to you in keeping the fear and frustration in check, maintaining your confidence, and moving forward in the face of any doubt you may have, by helping you practice your presentation.

By assisting you with role playing the conversations with your supervisor, the people in your support circle can help you improve your ability to communicate your needs without sounding either disrespectful and insubordinate, or overly weak and diffuse. Your support network can also help you refine your arguments, expectations, and presentation. Managing upward is a delicate balance of force and reason. This practice will help you polish your presentation, build your confidence, and help ensure that the words you chose do not make you sound insubordinate.

Achieving work-life balance is not easy. Managing upward is an invaluable skill for achieving work-life balance with less concern about job security, and, therefore, it is a powerful tool in achieving your work-life balance goals. The process of managing upward will also help you to see the value you bring to the company. Moreover, it will make you a much more valuable employee in the long run.

A Professional Effectiveness coach can assist you in learning how to manage upward more effectively. If you would like to learn more about how a coach can help you do this, contact the Professional Effectiveness Coaches at Foresight Performance, LLC.

Author's Bio: 

Ellen Smolko firmly believes that people perform best when they are focused on goals which are carefully calculated to drive the success they desire. She has coached numerous leaders in accurately aligning People, Process, and Purpose to achieve optimal results. A key adviser to corporate and entrepreneurial clients, she has provided insight and guidance which has measurably improved the effectiveness and efficiency of individuals and groups alike.

Ellen brings a sincere passion for coaching and mentoring people to achieve their personal best. Her unique methodology enables her clients to gain invaluable insights that support life long improvement and leverage their inner strengths to focus on what really matters.

You can read more about Ellen's philosophy and unique methodology at http://www.foresightperformance.com