The difference between managing up and workplace politics

Office communication

For a large part of your career you aren’t managing a team, you’re managing the expectations and perceptions your own managers have of you. Here’s how to manage up effectively without falling into political games.


  • Managing up is all about two-way communication and understanding the type of communicator your boss is.
  • Managers aren’t mind-readers – they need to hear what their staff are thinking and know what their capabilities and goals are.
  • Mastering the skill of managing up can help you present strategies and insights more effectively to other important audiences.

Is your boss a words person, or someone who likes charts and figures? A micromanager, or someone who will let you run with it?

Bosses have many different management and communication styles and if you want to build a good relationship with yours and get ahead, you’ll need to understand how to manage up.

Suzi McAlpine, a New Zealand-based leadership coach and author of the book Beyond Burnout, says managing up is working with your manager to get the best outcome for them, for your team and for the organisation. McAlpine says she’s seen very capable managers fail because they’re bad at managing up and conversely, has also seen less capable managers be very successful because they manage up well.

“Managing up is really all about building enduring relationships with leaders or more senior stakeholders,” agrees Lauren Stanton, talent acquisition leader and executive coach at EY across Oceania. Building those relationships takes time and effort. Get it right and you’ll progress in your career goals, while making your boss and your team look good. Get it wrong and you’ll end up languishing in a career black hole, while others surge ahead.

A lot of managing up is understanding your boss’s management style and tailoring the way you communicate to fit with how they like to receive information.

If your boss is an analytical person, then supplying them with facts and figures on how an initiative affects the bottom line will get cut-through. But if your boss is someone who prefers the big picture, then providing a narrative and a space where they can run with their thoughts is the way forward.

For a data-driven boss, there’s no point in delivering a long, elegant story when all they want to do is understand the risk profile of an opportunity, while a boss who likes narratives won’t react well to being presented with a series of spreadsheets.

Is managing up just politics?

It’s easy to look at managing up as something focusing on self-interest and simply a technique to move further up the food chain.

So, is it all just politics?

“If managing up moves into political manoeuvring and excessive politicking, then it’s not effective leadership,” McAlpine says, adding: “Being honest and upfront with your direct manager is not sucking up.”

suzi mcalpine

Pictured: Suzi McAlpine

“Being honest and upfront with your direct manager is not sucking up.” Suzi McAlpine

That said, sometimes playing the political game can work, at least in the short-term, observes John Smith (name changed), a senior leader at a management consulting firm in Sydney.

“Some people engage in managing up to highlight their personal contribution and for personal gain,” he says. “You could see it as brown-nosing, and I have often seen this happen in my career.”

The problem with taking a political edge to managing up, he says, is your team ends up being left out of the picture. However, being political can also take you a long way, before the house of cards comes tumbling down.

There’s good reason for this, says Smith. As a manager, if someone’s name is on your lips and they’re known to you through their political efforts to manage up, then you’re more likely to think of them when a new project or opportunity arises.

It’s a situation that doesn’t impress Smith. “Promoting people in that way is just wrong,” he says. “It’s lazy management.”

Stanton agrees. She says personal branding is important and people need to make the most of their strengths, what they stand for and their expertise. But she also observes there can be a darker side.

“We can sometimes fall into image management or cultivating the [perception] you think people should have of you,” Stanton says. “That’s where we only show what we think people want to see from us.”

This manner of personal branding, she says, leads people to create an image where they’re never seen to make a mistake or that they have their lives completely together. The reality is people need to feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves to work because if they don’t, their manager will miss out on getting to know them as a whole person.

“This can really impact trust and if you’re spending all this time and energy on image management, then that’s time and energy you’re not going to have to spend on more important things.”

Instead, Stanton says, that time and energy would be better spent being really focused and present in conversations with your team leaders.

Barriers to managing up

Your gender or cultural background can have an impact when you’re trying to manage up. Women, for example, may change the focus of leadership conversations from themselves to their team.

Countering this is the notion women might actually be slightly better at managing up than men, says associate professor Will Felps from the UNSW School of Management and Governance.

“On average, women are a little better at managing up because a lot of men are overly assertive with their bosses,” he says, the implication being women are less forward and more empathetic, enabling them to have the leadership conversations needed with their bosses, without being seen as too pushy.

However, Felps cautions against reading too much into this, because he says women are often still viewed negatively when they step outside what’s perceived as a typical gender role.

“Women are really punished when they try to assertively pressure upwards.”

People from non-Western cultures might also hit roadblocks, with some cultures having a deferential management style where it’s seen as taboo to question your manager or to move outside the hierarchy.

However, Catherine Walsh, partner and head of people and culture at PwC, says there are ways to address these barriers, much of it coming down to leadership setting the tone for an inclusive culture, where no one is left behind or left out of important conversations.

“As leaders we need to be skilled at creating the space, listening and giving people the opportunity to talk,” Walsh says.

It’s also important to have an institutional inclusion conscience, she says, which means having programs directly addressing the question of understanding the talent across the firm and identifying whether everyone has been included.

“It brings a testing voice into career and talent conversations to say, ‘have we really captured everyone, as opposed to people who are top of mind or who might have proximity or a recency bias because they’re the people in front of you?’”

Valuable skill set

Managing up is a valuable skill to develop, and one that you’ll ultimately adapt and use in many different situations. Apart from communicating well with your manager, being able to tune into individuals’ communication preferences can help you present financial insights and strategies more effectively to the company’s C-suite, the board, investors and important stakeholders. It’s a way of being truly ‘customer-centric’ with your boss, or the chief executive officer, as the customer.

“It’s really important to learn and understand your direct manager’s world,” says McAlpine. “What’s taking up their headspace and what’s keeping them awake at night?

“Once you understand those things, then you’re going to be better able to prioritise your own work and that of your team if you’re a leader yourself.”

Getting honest feedback on your management style

As a manager, you want to empower your staff to provide feedback that will help you to do a better job of managing them and delivering on your role. So, how do you go about getting honest feedback on your management style?

Leadership consultant Suzi McAlpine says you need to ask for it, and you don’t make it a career-limiting move when people have the courage to be honest.

“The best leaders regularly ask for feedback from their direct reports,” she says.

The problem leaders face when asking for feedback is it’s the natural instinct of their direct reports to say, ‘Oh you’re doing fine,’ McAlpine says, and so the leader needs to ask the question repeatedly, creating a safe space for an honest reply.

“The most important thing is when people have the courage to give you feedback, make that a positive experience for them. Say ‘Thank you, I am glad you had the courage to let me know, and I am going to work on it’.”

What type of boss are you managing?

According to leadership consultant Suzi McAlpine, bosses fall into four different social styles. There’s the analytical boss, the driver boss, the amiable boss and the expressive boss. “This doesn’t refer to personality or what’s on the inside, but instead the different ways people like to communicate,” she says.

A driver boss wants results. They don’t want to talk about feelings or emotions: they want you to be short, sharp and directly present relevant information.

Amiable bosses, on the other hand, are all about the relationship. “They listen to people’s feelings and they like niceties,” she says. “They’re less about hard data.”

An analytical boss presents facts and figures. They don’t want a story and they’re not interested in fluff, while expressive managers are the total opposite: for them, it’s all about the narrative.

It’s also worth bearing in mind some bosses are micromanagers, says McAlpine, and the best way to deal with them is to relay all information and keep them in the loop. “When you have a micromanager, love them up with data so they know what’s going on and, hopefully, over time they will ease up a bit.”

Gen Z manages up differently

Gen Z are those born between 1997 to 2012, and have been raised on social media and constant connection. This group manages up differently to other generations, says management consultant John Smith*.

“They will use social media to talk to all levels of the company,” he says. “They will comment on the CEO’s posts on socials and get a dialogue going, which is something they’re really good at.”

Gen Z is happy to step outside the normal hierarchy and expects to have the ear of management. Senior managers may baulk at having someone relatively junior offer feedback, but the reality is a gen Z moves up the management chain, this informal feedback mechanism will become the norm

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