Managing up: How to deal with a manager who doesn’t communicate well

Mar 12, 2024

4 mins

Managing up: How to deal with a manager who doesn’t communicate well
Michele O'Brien

Freelance writer and podcast producer

“People don’t quit jobs, people quit bosses.” Sound familiar? If your boss is a terrible communicator, you’re clearly not alone. A 2019 study from DDI found that 57% of employees left a recent job because of their manager. Ouch …

This leaves managers in a tough position. With many taking managerial roles to progress in their careers, some managers find themselves in the job without any particular desire to manage a team. In fact, a 2016 survey of managers found that a whopping 98% of them said they needed or wanted more management training. Is this unpreparedness contributing to the number of employees quitting because of their manager?

If you’re not happy in your job because of your manager, fleeing them isn’t the only option—you could learn to ‘manage up’. Roberta Matuson, founder of Matuson Consulting and author of the book Suddenly In Charge: Managing Up, Managing Down, Succeeding All Around, shares her advice on how to help yourself by helping your boss.

Managing up, explained

According to Matuson, “managing up is all about managing your boss so that you can get the resources you need” for yourself and for your team. In all likelihood, your boss has a ton on their plate—managing you and your colleagues, communicating with higher-ups, developing a long-term strategy for the team, working on projects themselves, and sitting in too many meetings to actually get it all done. So, instead of waiting, ever more frustrated, for your boss to get back to you on your end-of-year performance review, the principles of managing up instruct you to take the reins.

Explained Matuson, you could go to your boss and say something like, “I realize you’re super busy. I took the time to do a self-evaluation to help you get that performance review to me … Let’s set up a meeting so that we can go over it. How’s your calendar?” By being directive and specific, you can make sure your boss knows what you need from them, and that it won’t take much of their time—the on-the-job equivalent of writing a draft of your own reference letter to send to your recommender. By proposing potential solutions and action items when you raise concerns, you’re helping your boss feel like the problem you’ve brought to the table isn’t just another thing for them to figure out.

Why manage up?

Some might bristle at the idea that having a poor communicator for a manager means more work on your end, but Matuson insists that staying on top of your manager has long-term benefits: “Your boss is super busy, and the last thing he or she has time for is to manage. If you can help them in that process and … free them up so that they can work on other things, and you are not the problem child, you will go much further in your career than your colleagues who are sitting back and not managing their boss.”

By helping your boss help you, you’ll ensure that more of your time is spent working on your next project than waiting anxiously for your boss to give you feedback on something you submitted weeks ago. And, as a bonus, you’ll demonstrate that you have the company’s best interests at heart.

Transparency and clarity

For those aspiring to be managers themselves, Matuson suggests adopting a simple communication ethos: treat your direct reports how you’d like to be treated.

We all miss deadlines; we’re only human, and extenuating circumstances abound! However, if you’re going to miss a key deadline, communicate clearly and transparently to the stakeholders. For example, if you’re supposed to get back to your team by Tuesday, but Tuesday rolls around without you having the answer to give them, don’t just ghost. Instead, let the team know that you need a bit more time and give them a new target for when you’ll return with answers. For your colleagues, knowing when the information will come reduces the anxiety stemming from uncertainty—why do you think people love countdown clocks on train platforms?!

Having difficult conversations

Inevitably, conversations more uncomfortable than scheduling or assignments will arise with your boss. You might be experiencing job scope creep, or need to ask for more money. Says Matuson, “You cannot be afraid to have these conversations.” Practice the clarity and transparency you wish your boss did, and explain that what you’re currently doing does not match the job description and that you need your boss’s help to bring the two into alignment. Or, politely and calmly tell your manager that you’ve been working for less money than you’re seeing out there on job descriptions, and if your salary isn’t brought into alignment with the going rates, you’ll need to look elsewhere for employment.

Although confidence is key in these difficult conversations, your tone also makes a difference. Matuson advises you to steer clear of being accusatory: “Just have a conversation.” Your boss is busy—that’s why you’re managing up!—so make sure to give them the context they may not see day-to-day to illustrate both the problem and your proposed solution.

Hitting a breaking point

If you’ve tried managing up and you’re still getting nowhere, advises Matuson, look elsewhere. At a certain point, “you can only change your own behavior. You cannot change someone else’s. And so, if the changes that you’ve asked for aren’t being made or they’re not to your liking, then you have a decision to make,”—stay in a sub-optimal situation knowing it’s not going to change, or look for another job.

But take the idea of managing up with you to your next position. “You should be fearless. You’re going to have lots of bosses. This isn’t going to be your first and it probably won’t be your last. So you’ve got to get good at this,” says Matuson.

Key takeaways

  • If you’re struggling to communicate effectively with your manager, try managing up.
  • Provide potential solutions (or pre-written templates) alongside every ask you make of your boss. It will help them with time management, and help you get what you need faster.
  • Approach difficult conversations with transparency, clarity, and confidence. Nobody expects you to be superhuman, but everyone appreciates common courtesy.
  • If you’ve tried managing up and nothing has improved, consider looking elsewhere. You deserve a workplace where your needs are met and respected.

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