yes, you have to do it
Managing up seems to have gotten a bad reputation as "something you have to do to get an arbitrary level promotion in a large company because your manager is probably incompetent."
Frankly, it's more of how to build a strong relationship and work well with your manager. For some people and their managers this comes naturally. For everyone else there's some quick things that usually apply, and some style dynamics that can have a big impact.
At the end of the day, when it goes well, it will make your work more pleasant. It's also a key way to create alignment across organizations. I wrote this to be role-neutral, but from my own experience, there's probably slight bent towards builder (pm/eng/design) roles.
Do you respect your manager?
One of the hardest things to overcome in a working relationship is a lack of trust and/or a feeling of contempt. If you don't respect your manager, everything else is going to be a lot harder.
Can you believe the opposite of your story for a minute? If you were to say "I respect my manager" what would you believe. Can you commit to thinking the opposite for a week to work on from a place with more openness?
What caused this strained feeling to begin with? Could an open conversation about the strained relationship change it or at least ease the tension?
Would it make more sense to have a different manager? Is there an easy switch you could make if the organization is growing?
Can you live with it, without having it impact your work? Contempt usually shows, but if it's more of an ambivalent feeling, it might be workable.
I had one manager where I actively dreaded and avoided one on ones, and I'm not sure anything could have saved the work we did together. In retrospect, the second option (talking about it) would have been the right way to go, but at the time I didn't have the emotional maturity or skills to broach it.
Some Quick Across the Board Advice
Managers vary wildly and we'll get into a few styles and nuances after this. A few big pieces are:
Remember that you see things your manager doesn't! They're managing you, not doing your job. It's your job to share the important things, not for them to read your mind or spy on you.
Figure out what the org priorities, or your manager's priorities, are. At a big company this can mean what it takes to get them promoted (sigh). I love small companies because roughly everyone is aligned on just getting the company to work.
Figure out what the organization (or your manager) values skill-wise. Some teams praise cleverness, others collaboration.
Use your 1-1 to your benefit. They often won't go well unless you show up with a plan. Your manager will probably have templates or ideas or "prompt questions" if you don't, but only you can decide what will help you develop the most.
Ask some basic questions to figure out how your manager works. You don't need a full manager README, but if you know your manager has better advice if you send questions in advance, it'll help you too.
Ask for the right feedback. What you ask for will impact what you hear - "how can I have more impact?" or "what areas do I need to grow in?" are very different questions from "how can I get promoted?" and you should ask the right one for your needs.
Figure out your strengths/weaknesses as a report. Early on I was pretty good at framing what was going on and having cool ideas, but horrible at accepting company/org constraints. In retrospect I'm a little mortified and this must have been rough for my first manager. You probably aren't a perfect report just like they aren't a perfect manager.
Even the most consistent of managers will occasionally exhibit different behaviors. Extremely hands off people will want to specify every detail of one totally random feature. Detail oriented people will say “just do something, anything!” Go with how they are most of the time. Everyone has their moments of getting into the weeds or leaving things completely open ended.
More based on your Manager’s Engagement Style
Assuming you do value your manager, it's worth considering the style of the relationship. While managers have some flexibility to adapt to reports style, I've rarely seen a manager who is both good at managing in a very hands off way and an extremely detailed oriented way. I would roughly say the more senior you are, the higher up this spectrum you should be, but it also depends on personal style.
1. Extremely Hands-Off
The extremely hands-off manager just creates air cover. They probably don't give you a specific problem or solution to work on, don't give input when you report back how it's going, and tend to be more socratic in approach. It can look aloof. This might just seem "checked out," but the key distinction between "bad" and just "extremely hands off" is their ability to create space and air cover. If you have the freedom to figure it out, make mistakes, and not lose credibility at a higher level, this person is just very hands off.
This management style requires an immense amount of maturity out of the manager. I know very few people who can refrain from giving their own opinions and allow whatever new develops to come. This is a great type of manager for people who want a fast trajectory, are willing to have a lot of rope, and have enough self-awareness to correct problems as they come up.
It really takes two unique personalities to get this to work and I think this is a really rare scenario. I've only had one manager like this. It was in my first time in a leadership role, and it definitely took some adjusting, but in the end it helped me grow a large amount very quickly and develop confidence in setting direction.
Some tips for working with these managers:
Don't let them be surprised! That makes it much harder to be air cover. Share important information proactively, and make it clear how you've prioritized major areas you could work on.
Be really direct when you need their organizational clout to get something done. "I know we need to do X, and I've tried a few approaches but it's not going to get there without your support. Do you agree with X? Do you see another path, or can you help me get it done?"
Frame tradeoffs when you need input, or ask active questions about other stakeholders you know they spend time with. It won't always get a response but it will give them insight into how you're thinking through the problem.
If you need to shift them towards giving advice, let them know! Say something like "I know you like to let me figure things out, but in this case I'd really appreciate some direct advice. Do you think you could share some?"
Don't bother with all the details. Chances are they're thinking at a higher level and not being able to sort through "what matters" to tell them could undermine your credibility and weaken the relationship.
2. Hands Off but Gives Advice and Feedback
This is very common archetype for managers who have succeeded and have an intuitive process for what works at your level, but haven't necessarily practiced externalizing or teaching it. They don't specify what you should work on, but are able to give input one you raise a topic.
The difference between "this person doesn't actually know what's going on" and "this person is giving me space to run my own show" can usually be seen by the quality of input they give you. This manager is probably working hard to give you the space to decide what the right problems are and their solutions.
This manager works well for people who are self directed and have a good sense of what to work on, but still want guidance and support. It can be particularly good for previous high achievers who are growing into a new role. I've had two of these managers and both were able to give me space to work while giving me actionable insight about myself and the work that helped make me better. Many times in these relationships learning will go in both directions.
Some tips when working with these managers:
They're going to be merely competent (possibly bad at) at some things that you're world class at. That's totally fine. See where you fill in their gaps and bring that forward so they can learn and also see your unique value.
Figure out what they are world class at and make sure you get their input on those questions. It's your front row seat to apprenticing with someone amazing. For those areas it is usually best to keep them in the loop upfront vs. letting them find out later.
Accept hard feedback. These managers are often amazing at giving you hard feedback that can really unlock the next level. When they do, take it graciously so they'll continue to give it more.
Figure out the advice and stories they go to, and make sure you target your communication to get them at the right time. If you need to shift them to being more hands off, try "Sorry to interrupt. I love hearing your ideas, but I think I have a good sense already for this one. I think a better use of our time today would talking about Y" or "hey! I don't think I need our time this week. Here's my status on X and next week I'd like to hop into talking about Y."
If you're really at a loss of how to approach something, try to shift them towards specifying the problem. "I'm hearing we could work on X, Y, or Z. Do you have a sense of which of these would be more apt to move the needle for Next Company Milestone?"
3. Specifies Problems but not Solutions
First level managers (or second level at big organizations) are more likely to specify the problems reports will solve, but not the solutions to those problems. This is often especially appropriate for early-mid career reports who are still learning to executive effectively on larger projects, or sometimes contributors with a specific technical depth but less broad experience.
The most common complaint here is probably "my stupid manager can't do my job and/or doesn't get it." Frankly, I'd say 9/10 times what's really going on is "my manager is walking a delicate balance of how much transparency to give me while enabling me to learn to execute well."
In really bad times this falls into the contempt bucket, but based on most people I know (me included), in a few years the report will go "ohhhh they were acutally dealing about something way higher level than my highly specific technical issue. wow I was out of touch."
Make sure you fully understand the problem. If they say "start working on problem X," ask a lot of questions to frame problem X before you start.
Build your solution/execution skills by asking for support. Storytelling can help - "I started working on X by doing A, but it didn't go how I thought. How have you approached problems like X before? I was going to try B, but since A didn't work I wanted to check in before I did so."
When working on solutions, just because you think something is "valuable" or "right" for a solution doesn't mean everyone else will. Advocate for it, but align to the org, and decide when to cut your losses vs. die on the hill. Dying on every hill can undermine credibility.
If you want more leeway, try bringing up projects ahead of time with rationals for their impact. "I'm super excited to wrap up X. I started thinking a bit about what we could do next and Y seemed promising. I'd love to start to talk about that when you think it's the right time." In the worst case it'll get your manager to explain why the other projects are more important, which will help you hone the skill for next time.
If you need more support, "I really am excited about X, but it's a little complex as one project. I'm trying to break it down into pieces so we can see progress. I remembered when we worked on Y, that was scoped really well for me, do you see where we could break X into three Y-like pieces? I was thinking maybe Y, Y, Y?"
4. Specifies Problems and Solutions
The most detail oriented managers will specify both problems and solutions, and merely leave detailed execution of the solution to a report.
There's two cases of this. Sometimes this comes up with a newly promoted manager. In that case, they might try to go back into the details of the work vs. their new role. This feels like micromanagement.
In this case, the best option is giving feedback to your manager directly and through other official avenues. Framing it in a non-confrontational way can help - "I've really got the execution of this, could we talk about X instead?" Or, better yet, if they warned you this was a risk, "hey, you asked me to let you know when you started acting like an engineer instead of an EM, and this feels like we're going over that line."
The difference between this and when specifying solutions is appropriate probably depends on seniority and the personal preference of the report. Someone in their very first role needs a lot of hand holding! My first product spec was about error handling and I had no idea what to write. I needed someone to pretty much walk me through it line by line, like we were pairing. Likewise, some later career people (definitely not me!) really enjoy the clarity that comes from being able to use their skills to execute on a clear directive.
Shifting Styles Temporarily, By One Degree, or by Two+ Degrees
You probably have a different feeling about where on this spectrum you like to be. Sometimes you'll have an exception for a specific project, and I tried to give suggestions in each section on how to make that shift.
If your manager is one level away from where you'd like to be, a direct conversation about it can help. Most managers have the flexibility to make that shift if they know you're looking for it. For instance, Many managers who are in "advice and feedback" are actively trying not to frame problems, so if problem framing would help they can likely do it.
On the other hand if you're looking to jump by 2+ degrees, it's likely not going to happen with the same manager. This often happens when companies grow quickly. A first level manager may be both a manager and a leader, and as time goes on more levels get added. Some people like to try to grow quickly along side their manager. Frankly, If you'd rather have a more hands-on manager, it makes more sense to get leveled so you have the hands on support you want.
The usual endnotes:
Would a talk version of this content with examples be useful to you at a technical conference (maybe in a career development track)?
Hit reply if you have more ideas and/or want to request a future topic!