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15 principles for managing up
When your boss loves you, you have options. Here's how to help your manager get what they need, so you get what you want.
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Managing up is a skill that will serve you starting today and throughout your career. It’s a topic I’m obsessed with and I’m excited to share this deep dive that compiles years of lessons into one place. In this week’s newsletter, we’ll cover:
Embrace managing up.
Focus on the punchline.
Show your thought process.
Flag potential issues.
Bring solutions, not complaints.
Use information hierarchy.
Keep your manager in the loop.
Are you being micromanaged, or do you need to communicate better?
Over-communication might be the right amount.
Proactively assert what to do.
Don’t only ask questions. Share your point of view too.
Know when to get out.
Be explicit about what you need.
Expect to manage up forever.
Read time: 12 minutes
Early in my career, I didn’t know what “managing up” was. I thought that managers managed, but I wasn’t a manager. Therefore, it was my manager’s job to tell me what to do and my job to do it well.
It didn’t take long for me to realize this isn’t how it works, at least not in fast-moving organizations. When I realized that anyone, at any stage in their career, could be a leader, this changed how I showed up at work.
Managing up means being a competent operator who follows through, communicates appropriately, and drives toward business goals. This, in turn, elevates your actual and perceived value in an organization. This is all a mouthful, so “managing up” is useful shorthand.
To get anything done as a modern knowledge worker, you need to manage up and laterally to get what you need. Here’s how to do it.
1. Embrace managing up.
You don’t have to manage up, but your career will go further if you do.
I had no idea how busy my managers were over the years until I became a manager myself. It was like seeing in black and white, then all of a sudden seeing color. I had to replay old memories of my managers with this new realization in mind. Oh, so THIS is what y’all were doing when I thought you weren’t doing much.
Your area of responsibility is 100% of your time, but it might be 10% of your manager’s time—they have other direct reports, they’re responsible for producing quality output themselves if they’re a player-coach, they’re starting to draft next quarter’s priorities, they’re preparing talking points for this week’s all-hands meeting, they’re shielding your team from lame requests, and more.
🚫 “It’s my manager’s job to manage me. I’ll manage up when I’m promoted.”
✅ “I shouldn’t have to manage up. But if I do, I'll take control and further my career.”
🚫 “I’ll wait until my manager tells me to manage up more.”
✅ “My manager is busy with their job, plus a bunch of worries I don’t know about. They might feel awkward asking me to manage up more, so I'll take the reins and manage up proactively."
2. Focus on the punchline.
Give enough context to avoid back-and-forth follow ups. Don’t be coy when you can be direct. Don’t speak in stream of consciousness. Assume your manager is task switching or checking your Slack message between meetings—make it super easy for them to catch up on context and dive into what you want to discuss.
🚫 “This happened, then this other thing, this important thing that’s completely buried, and then this other thing.”
✅ “Here’s the minimum viable backstory, so we can spend time on the juicy stuff.”
3. Show your thought process.
Showing your thought process helps others understand your rationale, logic, and assumptions. The best part is even if they disagree, it gives something to push back on, which propels the process forward.
You don't have to have all the answers before speaking up, but you should try to address basic questions you might get. And you can preface with your level of conviction too—some ideas might be further along, while others are half-baked and still taking shape.
This gives your manager an opportunity to point out if you’re missing context, if you’re operating under different assumptions, or if you’re making a logical leap you didn’t realize you were making. All of which leads to productive conversations that get you closer to the right decision.
🚫 “I recommend this.”
✅ "I recommend X. Here's the rationale, data, and examples of why this should work. The potential risks are Y, but we can address by doing Z. If you agree, I can start by doing [first step]."
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4. Flag potential issues.
When you wait to be told what to do, you put 100% of the responsibility on your manager to be the eyes and ears on the ground, assess areas of risk, define what success looks like, then tell you what to do. If you stay alert to help surface potential issues, you alleviate that burden.
Senior leaders can flag issues and solve them, then tell their manager afterwards. For junior folks, managers may want you to speak up the minute you realize something is bubbling so they can gut check and solve it with you.
This is an excellent opportunity to calibrate and learn how your manager thinks. You may think a problem is important/urgent, but through this process, learn from your manager why that problem is actually low frequency and low magnitude, and therefore is a lower priority than you thought. Or, it could be the other way around: You convince your manager that this issue is a bigger deal than they thought.
This is win-win. You reduce your manager’s decision fatigue and mental load, and you sharpen your judgment and show you’re vigilant about what’s best for the team.
🚫 “This is a problem.”
✅ “This is a problem. Here’s why it matters. I suggest doing X.”
✅ “An important customer said X. I don’t think it’s a big deal, but I wanted to bring it up and run it by you.”
✅ “I’m not sure how to solve X but wanted to surface it. My hunch is to monitor for now, but let me know if we should brainstorm what to do.”
5. Bring solutions, not complaints.
You don’t need to know the exact solution to every problem. As we saw in the previous principle, flagging an issue can be just as helpful. But complaining itself is rarely valuable.
🚫 Before: "This sucks."
✅ After: "This sucks, so here's what I'm thinking we can do..."
🚫 “This process is messy and time-consuming. It’s so dumb. I hate doing this.”
✅ “This process isn’t working because X. I’d like to update to Y process instead, which should be cheaper/faster/easier. Let me know what I might be missing or if you agree to proceed.”
Here’s what Rose Jia, Head of Growth Marketing (Grocery) at Amazon, has to say about her direct reports managing up, and managing up to her own manager.
As a manager, #5 (bring solutions, not complaints) speaks to me because I want to help solve and unblock, but I will never have as much context as my team. When they come to me with issues, I want to know what their thoughts are and what they think are potential solutions, so I can help weigh in. #7 (keep your manager in the loop) is also super important, so I can make make informed decisions across and outside of the team based on what I know is going on.
As a person managing upwards, I’m all about #7 (keep your manager in the loop) and #9 (over-communicate), making sure my manager is well-informed. It’s a great way to build a strong relationship with my manager and stay top-of-mind for future big projects.
6. Use information hierarchy.
Put your recommendation, action item, or question at the top, then context below. This allows folks to read as much or little of the context as they need. This is especially useful for remote teams, where a hefty amounts information is communicated asynchronously and in writing.
🚫 Action items, backstory, bottlenecks, and context all jumbled together
✅ Action items or question at the top, context separately below
7. Keep your manager in the loop.
Trust isn't binary. It's more multi-faceted than that. But one of the best ways to continually expand trust is to demonstrate consistent, reliable follow through and communication:
Say what you’re going to do.
Tell your manager you’re doing it.
Tell your manager you did it.
Repeat. The problem is when you skip one of these steps. You might be doing the work, but if you forget to tell your manager, they have no idea if it’s being handled.
If you have bad news, speak up at your first itch that something may be wrong. By the time it’s a red flag, you might have fewer options on how to solve it. A big part of keeping your manager in the loop is making sure they know the good, the bad, and the ugly. You don’t want them to be caught off guard when their manager (let’s say, the CEO) catches an issue they should have heard about from their own team (that’s you).
✅ “We have 2 weeks until the deadline. We’re at 33/50 students, and with X leads in the pipeline, it's not enough to hit our goal. So this week, I’ll reach out to 100 new leads. I'd love to get your input on Y. Could we review tomorrow?”
8. Are you being micromanaged, or do you need to communicate better?
Poor communication skills and lack of managing up can lead to feeling micromanaged. In my experience, at least some people who complain about being micromanaged are probably bad at communicating, and thus require more hands-on management. For example, if you aren’t proactively sharing updates with your manager despite them begging to be kept in the loop, they have to follow up with you until they get what they need.
In my 15 years of working full-time, I’ve had actual micromanagers who nitpicked without logic behind their feedback and threw me under the bus in front of their managers. But, I’ll admit: I’ve also complained about “micromanagers” who, in hindsight, were doing the right amount of managing. I was just too immature to realize it at the time. Interestingly, I didn’t realize my role in contributing to the dynamic until I became a manager myself.
They weren't micro-managing me. They were simply holding me accountable. The two are not the same thing.
🚫 “Micromanagers are the worst. I wish they'd get off my back and just let me do my job.”
✅ “I wonder what’s making them feel the need to micromanage. I'll review how I’m keeping them informed and align on what success looks like, so I can show I’m handling it. When we build up trust, the micromanaging should go down.”
Micromanaging is probably one of the most misused labels. When you empathize with your manager, you’ll realize they are ultimately responsible for anything their team does, including your work. They want to make sure goals are on track and their team’s output meets the bar for excellence. Help them help you.
Also, side note: Your manager probably feels over-worked and wishes as much as you did (if not more) that they didn’t have to follow up so much. Most people don’t want to add more work to their plate. Your incentives are aligned in that they want to be able to trust you.
9. Over-communication might be the right amount.
Different folks have different thresholds of wanting to be kept in the loop. It’s hard to tell a manager’s preferences until you start working with them, but you can always ask upfront and iterate.
A more hands-on approach at first makes sense because both manager and direct report are establishing trust. Once trust is established, the manager usually eases off. The concept of task-relevant maturity is useful here. If you are skilled in an area, you likely need to give fewer updates about it. If you’re new, your manager may want to stay closer until you show you’ve got it under control. Here’s an excerpt of Andy Grove, co-founder and former CEO of Intel, from his book High Output Management where he talks about task relevant maturity:
"How often you monitor should not be based on what you believe your subordinate can do in general, but on his experience with a specific task and his prior performance with it—his task relevant maturity... As the subordinate's work improves over time, you should respond with a corresponding reduction in the intensity of the monitoring."
Andy Gupta, a Maven instructor and former analyst at Goldman Sachs, said this:
Early on in my career at Goldman Sachs, after I received my first feedback to communicate better laterally, upward and downward, I understood what it means to be an effective team player and leader. I started proactively communicating, with slightly different styles depending on the audience. The result was I became my own boss in a way, I started having more fun, I could better control my schedule, and I received more leadership opportunities.
Puppy T, a product manager at Elsevier and former Data Lead at CB Insights, said this:
I was "micromanaged" for a while in my career. I felt disrespected and not trusted and frustrated at first, then I decided to find a way to resolve that. Everyday, I'd "over-communicate" and share every detail about what I was working on, my reasoning, etc.
After a while, the person said to me, "You know, you don't have to tell me everything, I trust you."
Keep in mind you have exposure to primary data and proximity to certain problems that your manager lacks because their scope is broader. You see what’s happening on the ground and you’re more able to notice patterns within your area of responsibility, and that’s valuable knowledge for your manager to see. Don’t withhold it. By sharing it, they can better support you and make better decisions across the team and organization.
10. Proactively assert what to do.
Suggest next steps—don’t wait to be told what to do. Almost every leader instinctively asks, “Okay, so what? What should we do with this information?” By making a recommendation, you take on some of the cognitive load of decision-making. Even if you don’t make the final decision, it helps you make progress and arrive at a stronger decision.
You want your manager to poke holes, share a different perspective, and point out areas of risk because it will help you thrash early and prevent avoidable mistakes that will slow you down. When you do take action, you’ll be able to move faster and make the most of your efforts.
🚫 “What should I do?”
✅ “I recommend X. Here's rationale, data points, or examples of why this should work. The risk is Y but we can address by Z. If you agree, I’ll start by doing [first step].”
Offering a recommendation doesn't mean your recommendation will be taken verbatim. Your goal isn’t to get a “yes” at all costs—your goal is to do what’s best for the company. Sometimes the best action might be a no go on your idea.
11. Don’t only ask questions. Share your point of view too.
The problem with waiting to be told what to do is… you’ll be told what to do. If you’re at a fast-paced startup, you’re probably there because you dislike being told what to do more than average. You’re curious, you like solving non-obvious problems, and you are a little rebellious. If you wanted to be told what to do, you would have joined Microsoft or Deloitte. Don’t wait to be told what to do.
There’s a lot of dialogue about the importance of asking questions, but not enough conversation about the flip side: why you should form a point of view and make assertions despite working with imperfect information.
A great question can be game-changing, but don't expect that simply asking "why" five times will part the skies. That only works in theory. In practice, you work with smart people. If it were really so easy to ask one question to change everything, they would have thought of it themselves already.
🚫 “Why? Why again? Why again? [Mic drop]”
✅ “Why? My initial POV is [insight and rationale, patterns you’re noticing]. I'm not 100% sure yet, so I’m curious how you’re thinking about it, where you agree, where you see gaps.”
Instead of asking what you should do, here's what you can say instead:
"I came up with 3 ideas to improve X. Can I get your feedback?"
"I spent 15 minutes scenario planning and think X is best because Y."
"My initial hunch is leaning toward X, but I don't have high conviction on this and would like to discuss with you.”
“Given what I’m noticing with X and Y, I believe Z is happening with our customers. If you agree, here’s my hypothesis about what we can do.”
I’m not saying to go off the rails and go ham without buy-in. You want to make sure your manager is aligned before you spend resources on a project that takes you away from other priorities. And to be clear, this doesn’t mean to jump straight into doing. It means your job is to turn vague ideas into more concrete, specific ones that allow you to have a productive conversation.
12. Anticipate questions.
Anticipating questions is a skill that keeps on giving. It makes you better at marketing, sales, negotiation, public speaking, teaching, and more. If you can guess what your manager or colleagues will ask about, address it before they ask. This saves at least one cycle of back and forth, which adds up. When you consider the issue from their point of view, it helps you get their buy-in too.
It may take an extra ten minutes to get numbers to support your claim, but it's usually worth it. Some of the most compelling instant yeses I've given were when direct reports shared evidence that indeed made the situation feel inevitably, obviously straightforward. My reaction was, "Yes of course we should do this. Let's do it now."
🚫 “My idea is X. So what do you think?”
✅ “My idea is X. I thought you’d want to make sure the posts weren’t just performing well on social, but actually drove customers down the funnel. So I pulled the top 20 posts that drove the most ideal customers this quarter and…”
13. Know when to get out.
None of this works for managers who don’t have your best interest in mind or are insecure about their own work. No amount of managing up can resolve deeply troublesome issues, so use your best judgment.
🚫 “My manager undermines my work, throws me under the bus, and blames me for no reason. Managing up doesn’t work.”
✅ “Managing up works, but not in a toxic environment. I'll find an organization that’s a better fit and manage up to a manager who’s eager to work with me.”
14. Be explicit about what you need.
Are you looking for a thought partner to help you shape a new, fuzzy idea? Are you looking for emotional support and someone to listen? What kind of feedback would be most helpful? Share what you need specifically because you’ll be more likely to get it.
🚫 “Hey, can you take a look?
✅ “Hey, can you take a look? I’m looking for directional feedback on whether it makes sense to go down this path, no need for line edits yet.”
✅ “Can you approve this by 3pm today?”
✅ “I have updates on X. Let’s discuss by tomorrow EOD because Y.”
15. Expect to manage up forever.
In my twenties: "When I'm a leader, I don't have to manage up anymore."
In my thirties: "I'm going to have to manage up forever. This never ends."
At one point, I had been managing up for years, but in the back of my mind, I assumed I wouldn't have to do it anymore after I put in the years and hit an invisible threshold of seniority.
Until one day, I co-founded my own company. And.... I still had to manage up.
I looked around at other founders and executives, and saw that they were all still managing up. To their managers, their co-founders, their peers, their board, etc.
You might assume senior leaders and executives are “too trusted" to need to manage up. There's no such thing as too much trust. Every single leader has to manage up. Counterintuitively, senior leaders and executives are often best at it. They got to where they are because they know how to anticipate needs, communicate persuasively, and keep people in the loop.
The phrase "direct reports" conjures an image of a mid-level individual contributor, but actually, almost every manager is both a manager AND a direct report themselves. So it might be nice to know you're not the only one managing up. Your manager is doing it too. And so is their manager.
🚫 “I’ll only have to manage up when I’m junior or mid-level.”
✅ “I’m ready to manage up even if I’m 15+ years into my career.”
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