The Concept

"Wait, I should be managing my boss? But they manage me!" Yes, absolutely. You should be managing your boss, your colleagues, and frankly, they should be managing you as well. I'm suggesting a world where everyone is a responsible manager, but not the useless type. Even the Harvard Business Review agrees that you should throw out the typical boss-subordinate relationship and start taking responsibility.

Conceptually, this is quite simple. However, it does represent a new paradigm of action for most individuals walking the halls of today's companies.

The biggest shift for many people will be the adoption of proactivity as their default behavior. Let me be clear, the concept of "managing up" is not about reporting lines or matrices, it's about responsibility and ownership--taking responsibility for communicating what's happening and owning the process of getting something done.

A New Paradigm

It's so much easier not to be proactive. The difference between not doing something and doing something is quantum. Think about a lazy weekend spent sitting at home. It's exponentially easier to keep sitting than it is to stand up and go take the dog out. Same with communication at work.

It takes less effort to receive direction and deliver a result than it does to proactively communicate about progress over time. Proactively communicating against expectations will provide your boss everything he or she needs to help you prioritize and manage your workload, but this requires you being bold and speaking up.

Here are three things you can do to manage up and take responsibility into your own hands:

1. Own it

  • Don't avoid the problems, tackle them head-on.
  • Face the facts and don't let your emotions get in the way. If things aren't going according to plan, that's OK as long as you're actively communicating the challenges and what you plan to do about them. What's not OK is waiting until it's time to report on progress to say that something came up so you couldn't get the job done.
  • Ironically, Massachusetts's transit system has a campaign that's fitting here: If you see something, say something. While the transit authority is focused on public safety, at work this slogan speaks to overcoming obstacles before it's too late.

2. Anticipate

  • Look to the future and anticipate what may happen.
  • Pull out that crystal ball called a "gut instinct" and mix it with some due diligence to anticipate what may happen that could derail your plan. Don't be afraid to be wrong or to bring up something that might have an adverse impact. Undoubtedly, something will come up to partially thwart your progress--but it's better to anticipate these things than to let them smack you in the face.
  • Once you have a sense of potential challenges, develop a plan for what you're going to do about them. Play out different scenarios and have an opinion about what will happen and what your recommendation will be. Then, communicate it.

3. Talk it out

  • Over-communicate. Give updates. Even if you think your boss knows what's going on, update her with what you're seeing. Talk about your progress, new data you're discovering that could improve the outcome, and, of course, the potential challenges.
  • You can even put structure around this by implementing something dead simple like Yvon Chouinard did, the 5-15 report. It's a weekly update that takes 15 minutes to write and 5 minutes to read--no more.

Just as your bosses are accountable for managing you, you are responsible for managing them. If you try this and your boss yells about how ridiculous you are and to just get the work done, it may be time to consider another job. However, chances are, they'll be impressed and will want to work with you on revising the plan, empowering you to continue doing good work.

I know many people view managing up differently--what do you think it is? Have you seen any negative outcomes from these strategies? I'd love to hear back from you and collaborate on an extension to this article.