The Essentials: Managing Up
Having a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with your boss doesn’t require accommodating their every quirk, demand, and weakness. There are respectful, constructive ways to meet in the middle, set boundaries, and help them achieve their goals while making your competence known.
Amy G sits down with a woman who recently left retail for her first office job and a fintech executive with a marketing background to discuss managing-up practices that have helped them maintain positive, productive relationships with different bosses across their careers.
Valerie is an operations manager at a law firm. She used to work in retail.
Mita Mallick is the head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta, a fintech company. She used to work in marketing. She co-hosts the podcast Brown Table Talk.
• HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across, by Harvard Business Review
• “Setting the Record Straight on Managing Your Boss,” by Amy Gallo
• “How to Give Your Boss Feedback,” by Amy Gallo
• “Dealing with Your Incompetent Boss,” by Amy Gallo
• “When Being Indispensable Backfires,” by Mita Mallick
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AMY GALLO: The quality of our relationship with our boss can make or break how productive and satisfied we are at work and how much we’re able to advance. Thinking back on my past managers, there was the one who first told me what a clear writer I was, who encouraged me to take on bigger projects and stretch my skills and gave me the confidence to pursue writing and editing as a career. He set me up to eventually become an editor here at HBR. Then there was the boss who was a micromanager. She rewrote anything I’d written and regularly questioned how I was spending my time. She seemed to be saying, “I don’t trust you,” which caused me to distrust her right back and not want to collaborate with her. You’re listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Gallo. Every manager has their leadership style, quirks, habits, and shortcomings. And while in theory, accommodating all those might keep them happy, it’s bound to slow down your career and make you very unhappy. So, just as they should be coaching you, you should be coaching them. Two women from different industries at different stages of their careers are joining me to talk about managing up practices that have worked well for us and that we hope you’ll find useful too. Mita Mallick leads inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta, a FinTech company. She cut her teeth managing up in the marketing industry. Valerie, who also goes by Val, recently stepped into an operations role at a law firm after having worked in retail for several years. Between the three of us, we have learned a lot and we have advice to share, so that you can establish and maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with your boss. So, Valerie, when did you start to realize that in order to do your job well, you need to manage your boss some?
VALERIE: As a retail worker, I really leaned into it when I decided that I was going to pursue a management role. When I was down on the front lines, base-level employee, my managers weren’t that important to me. It was a temporary job, a job that I wasn’t very invested in. I did really well for the things that I had to do, but it was like, come in, do the job, go home. But once I felt myself in this natural progression, the way that leaders tend to find themselves, it just became clear over time that I was the person that was always coming up with ideas, the person that was always executing new processes, the person that was leading the team around me, and I started to get a much more active role in communicating with my managers in these things that we were changing and the things that they were trying to do, in addition to bringing forward a lot of the regular employee issues that they didn’t know about.
AMY GALLO: Right. Can you give us an example of a time recently where you’ve had to manage up and you realized, “I’m so glad I’m doing this because things would’ve gone sideways if I hadn’t.”
VALERIE: Oh, God, I have so many. So, a very, very, very recent example. I just came into this new job and I work for a law firm, and one of the things that I have taken upon myself is to be the liaison between our law firm and our IT security company. So, anything that’s being communicated between the two parties, I’m the one in the middle. So, I have to constantly – literally every day, every other day – with my boss, “Here’s the next step in this process, you have to go and do this.” Just poking him in the side every single day, “Just here’s one more thing. Here’s one more thing. By the way, we need to upgrade our Microsoft 365 account. I’m going to do that with Frank. You just have to say, okay.” This is my new way to get my boss to do what I want him to do. I give him a two-sentence summary and I end it with, “just say yes,” and then he says, yes. It’s extremely effective.
MITA MALLICK: That’s amazing.
AMY GALLO: That’s amazing. Mita, I see you nodding. I hear you saying yes. What in Valerie’s examples and response here connects to how you think about managing up?
MITA MALLICK: I think in what Val said, what really resonates with me is that throughout my career, I just got smarter about studying my bosses and how they worked. So, this can often be in conflict and at odds with showing up as our authentic selves or the best version of ourselves, and the reality is, there are power dynamics at work. So, our job is to make our bosses look good, ourselves good, our team, our companies look good, and so, studying bosses, like in the way when you just… the joke about the two-line summary, “just say, yes.” I had one boss who once told us from the beginning, “the titles of your emails have to be action-oriented; urgent request, approval request, for your review and consideration, FYI.” I had one boss who never looked at emails. We were on a very large campus, so I got really smart about meeting him and walking him to meetings. So, I would walk with him, bring my little file and say, “Can you approve this bottle shot?” and he was engaged. I had one boss who really only liked to be making decisions over text. I had somebody who I knew would be there at 8:00 AM before all the chaos started, and if I could get into his office then while he had his cup of coffee, I could get him early and get a lot of approval. So, I think there’s this piece of studying people’s behaviors and how they respond, and how often have we ever asked our bosses, “How do you like to work?”
AMY GALLO: Right. So, Mita, let’s step back for a moment. I know some people in my life, and I imagine some of our listeners are like, “Why am I managing them? That is not my job. They are my manager.” Can you just give us a summary of why this is an important skill?
MITA MALLICK: It’s an important skill because you start to think of your relationship with your boss as a co-partnership. You’re both in it to be successful, neither of you will be successful without the other, and so, if you think about it in any relationship that matters, you try to meet people halfway. I’m not going to totally become that person. I’m not going to maybe meet them all the way, but if I start to take a few steps forward, they’ll take a few steps forward. So, I had another boss who really liked before every one-on-one I had to fill out a Google Sheet of all the things I had been working on, and I found that to be highly annoying and I did it for a while. Then I think she started to recognize that it was not how I worked, and she started to let it go and to say, “Okay, maybe once a quarter, you can just sort of send me an update of all the projects and things you’re working on,” because she had seen me consistently making an effort to work in the way that she wanted to. But as the trust was built, she said, “Okay, I trust her. I know she’s making an effort and this is not how she likes to work, so let’s meet in the middle.”
AMY GALLO: Right, and you didn’t actually say, “I hate this Google Sheet. I find it tedious.” How did you sort of get to a place where it became clear that wasn’t necessary?
MITA MALLICK: I think I was pretty candid the first time to say, “Oh, this isn’t normally how I work, but is this how you prefer to work? So, I will fill out the Google sheet,” and she said, “Yes, this is what I’m doing for all of my one-on-ones,” and I said, “Okay.” Then when she asked me how I conducted my one-on-ones, because I also was managing a team, I said, “Well, I do what they prefer to do. Some people have their own trackers. Other people come with a list on a post-it” because I’m focused on the output and not the input. So, I think she probably started to observe how I was leading my team as well and started to relax the way in which we work together, or to meet me halfway, as I said.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. There is so much about managing up that’s sort of trying to follow the boss’s lead, trying to help support them to achieve their goals. But there’s also the setting boundaries and working in the way that you want to work.
MITA MALLICK: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Part of, I believe, managing up is training your boss as well on boundaries. So, when I had the boss who would routinely text me at 6:00 a.m. or on the weekends, 10 o’clock on a Saturday night and I responded, I allowed it. It’s a slippery slope. You respond, then they expect you to be on demand and I am not an Uber app. Right? I’m not available 24/7, but I presented myself that way. So, in my next assignments, I was very careful to set the boundaries that I didn’t want the text at 6:00 a.m. I received it, but then I would log into my email at 8:00 a.m. and email and say, “Good morning, I know you’re looking for the forecasting information for this month. Here you go.” So, then slowly over time they would stop texting me. Sometimes they wouldn’t. But you have to train your boss on how you work. Now, that’s not to say there won’t be emergencies. That’s not to say that something doesn’t come up that, of course, I’ll pick up the phone on a Saturday if something is really going wrong and I need to step up and help.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Well, and you’re creating boundaries by not saying, “I won’t respond to your text at 6:00 AM,” but by saying, “I will email you at 8:00 a.m.” Right? It’s sort of in the affirmative of here’s what I can do, not just – If you had texted back, “I will not respond to text at 6:00 a.m.” Right? I imagine that would’ve been a much different relationship.
MITA MALLICK: Yes, probably. Well, also now, I mean, technology has changed so much, you can silence your notifications. Your boss will probably see that I’m not on my phone at 6:00 a.m. I’m up with my kids, but I’m not always on my phone for work. I think there’s another piece, Amy, around diminishing returns. I will be burned at both ends if I am responding to texts at 6:00 a.m. and responding to them at 11 o’clock at night. So, how can I bring the best version of myself to work? Part of that is showing up with energy and sleep and intention and focus, and you can’t do that if you’re responding to everything at all hours.
VALERIE: I think anybody who’s listening who comes from retail will feel that really hard. Retail can be really intense and demanding. If you are willing to work sixteen hours, they will let you work sixteen hours – and more often than not, I was totally willing. I worked whenever I could, and I worked really hard all of the hours that I was working. I pulled a lot of doubles. I worked overnights when I needed to. I covered shifts for literally anybody who asked me. There’s very much this feeling of pressure and responsibility and guilt, and that was just the reality for me, and I just assumed that was the reality everywhere. If you can be working, you should be working, and that’s what makes you valuable. So, now having a boss who’s telling me, “Okay, rule number one, if you’re going to be working here, turn off literally every single one of your notifications right now. If you’re not working, you’re not working.”
AMY GALLO: That’s amazing.
VALERIE: It is amazing.
AMY GALLO: Mita, I want to ask you about the observations. You see your boss so closely. You’re sort of constantly watching them. In that process, you are likely to see things that they could do better, and yet there’s a big amount of fear most of us have around giving feedback to your boss.
MITA MALLICK: Yes.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. So, how can you get a sense of whether or not your boss will be receptive to feedback?
MITA MALLICK: It goes back to observations. How do they take feedback from others in meetings, from their peers, from their boss? Are they individuals who are generous about giving feedback? So, do you see them giving feedback to others, and is that received well? Or are they the bosses I’ve had in the past who just say, “Just keep doing what you’re doing”? Which is the lazy approach. I’m like, “What does that mean?” Then when it’s promotion time, I’m like, “I thought I was on track. Well, you told me to keep doing what I’m doing and here I am still.” There’s also bosses who… I mean, there are toxic bosses. So, people who do not give feedback with a lot of care, let’s say, and just cut right to the chase and do it in a very unkind way. So, I think that’s how you can observe. You can also ask to help. So, let’s say there is a report that your boss produces for the team and it’s a mess. You don’t say it’s a mess, but you could say, “Val, the monthly report that you are putting out, I’d love to help you streamline it. Would you be open to that?” So, likely Val will say, “yeah, of course,” and then I make it look really great for Val. Then Val’s really happy with me and it makes Val and the team look good. So, there’s that way to offer to help as well. So, here’s another thing I learned in my career: how often do bosses receive positive feedback? Because we often think of feedback as negative in areas of opportunity. But if you build a relationship with your boss, you’re managing up. If you actually tell them the things that they’re doing well and give them specifics, it builds trust. It makes them feel good. It also then opens the opportunity for when there are areas of opportunity to say, “Well, Val, actually, next time we present as a team, my observation was that we should have fixed slides five and six because the way that we presented it was confusing to the audience.”
AMY GALLO: Right, right, right. What if you do offer feedback or ask if they want feedback or offer help and they just say no?
MITA MALLICK: Well, they’re not open to it. I mean, you could always say, “I wanted to be helpful. I thought that perhaps the first two pages of the report we could streamline to be this. I know you have said that we should try to shorten some of the things we’re putting together. I noticed the report has good information, but it’s ten pages. I’d love to help you make it five.” So, those are ways to do it.
AMY GALLO: Valerie, have you had success giving any of your bosses feedback?
VALERIE: I’d say minimally. It never works the way I want it to, but when I’ve gone for it, they’ve at least listened to me, even if they haven’t agreed with me. So, one of the ones that came up the most as a supervisor in retail was having to be kind of the intermediary in conflicts. So, it’s like these people have an issue and it’s not a big enough issue for the big boss to deal with it. But also, I don’t have enough authority to do anything about it, except listen, which is a really unfortunate scenario to be in, especially when you’re working with teenagers. If you don’t give some kind of inkling that you’re interested in these conflicts that they’re having, of course you’re not going to get any kind of performance from them, right? You have to demonstrate at least a little bit of care about somebody. And for a teenager, somebody who makes fun of the way that you dress, that’s a really big, huge conflict. So, I had one boss in particular, who I did have a really good relationship with and I just sat him down and I’m like, “Look, this situation with X person is really spiraling, and I know you said you didn’t want to deal with it. I know you said you don’t have time for drama, but a lot more people are getting involved now, and if you don’t say at least something, acknowledging that it’s happening – even if you don’t come up with any solutions, if you don’t at least acknowledge that it’s happening – all of your best people are going to walk out. That is how big of a deal this is to them.” He listened, we had the conversation, and he said, “Okay, I hear you, and I understand. Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’m not going to do that. They’re just going to have to figure it out.”
AMY GALLO: So, you gave the feedback and he heard you.
VALERIE: He heard me.
AMY GALLO: But it was not heeded.
VALERIE: No. No.
AMY GALLO: Mita, I’m curious if you have any advice about what to do when you’re in the situation Valerie was? The feedback is like, “Yep. Heard you, but not going to do that.” How do you not let that stop you from doing it next time or should you let it stop you?
MITA MALLICK: Well, it’s like most things in life. It’s a form of rejection. So, when we’re rejected, how do we continue to be resilient around that and not give up? Because there are so many things happening in our world every day, so you don’t know when you gave your boss that feedback, what else was going on in that person’s life, even outside of work and what mind frame they were in. So, sometimes it’s like, “I gave the feedback at the wrong moment. If I had waited a week…” This happens at work for me, where I’m like, “You know what? I know Amy is about to move. There’s a lot of things happening in her life right now. I’m going to wait to give that feedback or approach that topic in a week because I know she’ll be more receptive.”
VALERIE: It’s funny that you say that. I am literally in this exact situation right now. Two weeks after I got hired, I texted my boss and told him that I added my sixty-day review to his calendar. He doesn’t do reviews. So, I told him, “One of the best and worst things about me as an employee is, I do not work without feedback, and I will ask you for it and you will give it to me. This is non-negotiable.” So I put it in his calendar. I reminded him. Something came up, it’s cool, no problem. I reschedule eight of your meetings every week anyway, we can reschedule mine. Rescheduled it again, missed it again. He was stuck in a deposition. It’s cool. It’s fine. Everything’s okay. Rescheduled it again. He just forgot that time. He just straight up forgot, and I was like, “You know what, buddy? It’s okay. We’ll get there when we get there.” Because, A, he’s working on five huge, enormous cases. His wife is literally in labor today, and he’s moving across the country in a month and a half. So I’m like, “Do I want this to happen? Yes. Is this incredibly important to my job? Yes. I can wait.”
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Gosh, the balancing of what’s going on for them, with your need, for what you want at that moment, that can be tricky, and I think sometimes we get so focused… I once quit a job while my boss was in the middle of a crisis because I was so nervous about having to quit. I knew I was going to quit. I was moving on to something else. But she was in the middle of a crisis and I was just like, “By the way, I’m leaving.” It was the meanest thing I’ve ever done to a boss. I was so focused on what I needed at that moment. I think, Valerie, what you’re pointing to is just the consideration that your boss is a human with demands on their time. They have so much going on besides you, and you have to consider that and also continue to advocate. You’re not going to drop that conversation. You will have it.
VALERIE: Definitely not. It’s still on his calendar.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Yeah. But you’re hopefully going to find the right time.
MITA MALLICK: I would also add that while we’re talking about managing up to her boss, there are other leaders you should be managing up to as you’re thinking about your career. So, in the case for Val, where your boss has a lot of things going on right now, and doesn’t have the mental or physical space time to give you that feedback, his peers that you’re working with might have time to give you feedback. Given the nature of your role and how critical it is, other people are observing what you’re doing and watching what you’re doing. So, if you went to Amy and said, “Amy, just wanted to check in. The big project, the initiative that we just unveiled that I led, it’s just wrapping up. Wanted to ask you for specific feedback on these three things.” I’m sure if Amy had been watching and observing you, she would have feedback for you – and I think, also, the specificity, right? Being specific about trying to get that feedback, I think is really important.
AMY GALLO: Well, it’s not just about feedback, but there’s lots of things you might not be getting from your boss, right? Guidance, encouragement… and if you aren’t getting those from your boss and you’re doing your best to manage up and find ways to do it, there are other people who can give you those things, and it doesn’t have to be the most senior person at the organization. Like you said, Mita, it could be a peer, it could be your boss’s peer. I like that as a piece of advice.
MITA MALLICK: So, Amy, I know you speak and write a lot about conflict and difficult conversations. Let’s say that one of our listeners disagrees with the decision her bosses made or an idea they have. How would you advise for her to voice her concern and to speak up?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. I think most of us feel very hesitant to disagree. I mean, it’s human nature. We like people who agree with us and we want our boss to like us. The challenge is, I think most of us overestimate the risks of challenging the boss. In fact, we really need to focus on the risks of not voicing that disagreement because those are often greater than the risks of saying what you believe. Now, I want to be realistic. There are some bosses, especially people we know from research – like insecure bosses, for example – who really do not want you to voice your opinion, and you have to be able to read your manager. You have to know that. Maybe you even have a conversation in a one-on-one before any decisions are made, that you need to disagree with, where you say, “If I don’t see eye to eye with you, how would you like me to express that?” You’re going to get a lot of cues about how they want you to, or not want you to do that. But I also think in the moment, it’s helpful – and this is going to sound a little overly deferential – but I think it’s helpful to also ask permission and say, “Huh, I have a different perspective on that. Would it be okay if I share that right now?” Most of the time they’ll say yes, even if they don’t mean it, they’ll say yes. They’ve then bought into you disagreeing and given you sort of tacit permission to do it, and I think you just have to sort of hold your opinion lightly and not be like, “Your decision here is absurd. It’s going to ruin the company,” right? But take all of the adjectives out of your disagreement and just make very clear, “Well, we’ve tried something like this twice and the results were mixed. Can we talk about what the risks here of this approach is?” So, trying to be really factual, not assigning fault or blame or anything negative to your boss, but just really trying to focus on the ideas, I think can be really helpful – really trying to show your boss, “I’m most interested in the outcome.”
MITA MALLICK: Yes, and just to also make them aware that you might not be the only one that’ll disagree with the decision. So, giving them awareness of how the organization or the rest of the team might receive that decision. And that way you can, as you’re saying, express your concern, but also show them that you’re still on their team. You’re actually looking out for them to say, “This has happened before, and this was the feedback,” and I think that would be well received.
VALERIE: So, this is something that I’m actually really actively working on right now. And I do want to say very clearly, I love my boss. I think he’s a good person. He has an amazing vision. I am here for it. And he also just happens to have a lot of really bad ideas. One of the things that I’ve started doing is, at the end of an email, I’ll just throw in a Jerry Maguire gif “Help me help you,” like, “I am not here for my own agenda. My whole job is to make what you are trying to do work, and I’m telling you, this will not work. I know that because I asked four people and they said, ‘Absolutely not.’” So yes, I push back a lot. I push back constantly because I really have faith in where we’re going and I really appreciate being a part of it. But also I have very high standards that I stick to.
AMY GALLO: Well, and what you’re doing is reminding him of your intention because I think sometimes, especially again, insecure managers, they push back on disagreements because they’re afraid your intentions are wrong. You’re trying to make them look bad. You’re trying to further your own career. Right? So, if you remind them, this is my intention and it is genuinely your intention, it can ease that little bit of ego defensiveness that might come into play. Yeah.
VALERIE: And I try to make it as lighthearted as I can every single time. No pressure, no pressure at all. Just, “Hey, it’s your buddy, Val, telling you not to do that.”
AMY GALLO: It sounds like it’s well-received. Is that true?
VALERIE: Yes. Yes, it is. He doesn’t always take my suggestions, but he does at least listen to them and he appreciates it.
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
MITA MALLICK: Val, I’m doing that tomorrow at work.
AMY GALLO: Do it.
VALERIE: Using the Jerry Maguire gif?
MITA MALLICK: Yes. I’m going to do it. Best tip ever. Thank you.
VALERIE: You’re very welcome.
AMY GALLO: All right. Let’s get into a couple more specific scenarios. Mita, I want to ask you, what do you do if your boss isn’t giving you much recognition, visibility and is maybe even taking credit for work you’re doing?
MITA MALLICK: Been there. Done that. Well, what I would say is, let’s start at the beginning, ask. So, what do I mean by that? “Val, I’m so excited I worked on that proposal for the team. I know there’s a meeting on Tuesday at 10. I’d love to come and attend to see firsthand what the reactions are in the room. I’d love to present part of it with you. I’d love to co-present with you.” Sometimes I will give people the benefit of the doubt. People are busy and people forget and people assume that I just would’ve come to the room. Val might just be like, “Of course Mita’s going to come present,” but the invite was never extended. So, I think that’s one way to do it. I think another way that I’ve done it successfully in my career is when we think of this idea of managing up, it’s not linear. It’s across, it’s up, it’s down. So, if you are working on something for a company that is some sort of a recommendation to streamline something, it’s not only your boss who’s going to benefit. So, why not get coffee with peers? Why not get coffee with boss’s peers – Check-ins and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m working on this recommendation to streamline this project,” and just to sort of enroll people and get them to start to know about the work that you’re doing, because what will happen is, when you’re not in the room and that project comes up, Amy, who I had coffee with will say, “Oh, well, yeah, I know Mita’s been working on that.” So, those are some ways to do it. I think that over time I have been in situations where, if your boss is absolutely taking credit for everything you’re doing, then that’s probably not going to lead to a long-term successful outcome for you, in terms of figuring out what you’re going to do next, whether that’s a rotation or promotion, because if people don’t know what you’re doing, it’s going to be hard.
AMY GALLO: Yeah, and I actually find enthusiasm is also helpful here. So, rather than thinking of it as, “I’ve got to make sure everyone knows I did this thing,” I’ve approached it as, “I’m so excited about this thing that worked out. This idea we had that actually is being executed.” And sharing it as enthusiasm on behalf of the organization, rather than like, “Look at me and my great ideas.”
MITA MALLICK: You know what I also love about that, Amy? It’s that nothing in organizations happens alone. It’s a group of people. You might have done a lot, but it’s a group of people that are doing it. So, when you start to share that enthusiasm and when you start to give other people credit, they’ll give you credit back. So, that’s another way to get recognition for the work – when you start to give others recognition who worked on it with you.
AMY GALLO: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. What about a boss who’s completely hands-off? How do you get their attention, their direction, their sign off on things? Mita, any advice?
MITA MALLICK: One of the things I’ve done successfully is, if a boss is hands-off, there’s generally something they’re interested in. It’s a shiny new project. It’s an initiative. So, if I know that Val, my boss, is really excited about this project, I can work with her on that. But then also when I’m meeting with her, use that time to get sign off on other things, and also just to be like, “Val, I know this is your number one priority. I actually have these other two projects I had emailed you about, but I haven’t gotten feedback. Is there someone else I should go to?” Usually the person will say, “Yeah, my attention is elsewhere. I haven’t been able to respond to those emails, go talk to Amy about it. But thanks for asking.” That way you’re managing up to say in a very polite way, “I’m not getting any response from you. I need help,” and that person, if they have some level of self-awareness will say, “You’re right. Let me give it to Amy.” The invite is important too, to say, “Is there someone else that you think I could work with on this because I know you have so much on your plate?”
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
VALERIE: So, Mita, I would love to hear from you the flip side of a micromanager who wants to know every single thing that’s happening all the time, no matter what. How do you approach a boss like that? How do you kind of navigate that scenario?
MITA MALLICK: Oh, gosh. Micro managing can be soul crushing. Can it not? It can be.
VALERIE: It can.
MITA MALLICK: It can be. I had a manager once who would rewrite everything I wrote. I mean everything. So, I would come up with the proposal, I would go to review it with him, and I still remember that circular table we sat at years ago and would rewrite everything. Not key headlines take away, but like, “Let’s restructure the sentence,” and I’m like, “Oh, my goodness.” I remember sitting there in pain. So, I finally said to him, “I wanted to check in with you about ways of working and how I could be better prepared for these meetings, because I find that for a lot of our time together, you spend the time reworking what I’ve already put together. Are there ways in which I could come better prepared?” Would you like to see this ahead of time? Are there themes of what you’re rewriting that I should be working on?”
MITA MALLICK: So, actually he took that feedback well, to say he still rewrote things, but I would send it to him ahead of time. So, I felt like we were wasting a lot of time in person because I just sat there watching him edit the deck. But just ask the question or acknowledge that this is happening. It’s like you serve as a mirror and the person’s like, “Okay. Yeah, we just did spend nineteen minutes. You just sat here watching me rewrite your whole proposal. Let’s use this time more effectively.”
VALERIE: One of the things that I’ve been doing with my boss lately is putting things in terms of labor hours because I came here from being an hourly worker. This is my first time being salary, and I’m like, “All right. If you want me to spend twenty-five hours on this project, then spend another fifteen hours next week reviewing it and then spend another thirty-five hours redoing the project because we didn’t have the initial meeting with the team who’s going to be using this product, sure. We can do that. But you know how much you’re paying me and how much I could be doing with those hours. So, that’s a hundred percent your call, bud.” I did the math. I’m like, “This is my salary. This is how many hours that I’m working right now. You tell me what you want those hours to be.”
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
MITA MALLICK: Amy, I wanted to talk about your new book. I’m really excited to see it come out and read it. I know one of the chapters is all about incompetent managers. So, for all of our listeners – and I really want to know the answer to this question – what if your manager just isn’t good at their job? This has happened to me a few times in my career. How do you approach managing up if the person is incompetent? What should you do?
AMY GALLO: Well, first I would make sure you understand that they’re actually incompetent. So, I think sometimes… We’ve touched on this a little bit, but we don’t see all of the pressures they’re under. I had a boss who I thought was horrible at what they were doing, and what I learned was that their boss was giving them completely mixed messages about what we should be focused on. So, they looked all over the place, but they were actually just sort of ping-ponging between these requests. So I think, really try to understand, is this true incompetence or is there something else going on? I think that would be the first step. Then also you have to decide, how much am I willing to compensate? In my experience, that when you are willing to compensate and step in, say, “Can I take that presentation? I’m happy to crunch these numbers for the team,” whatever it is that they’re unable to do, if you do it on their behalf, you still have to make sure that your work is visible to who’s important in the organization.
VALERIE: So, Amy, how can you make this determination that they are actually an incompetent manager and not just somebody with a thousand different outside pressures that are impacting their job performance?
AMY GALLO: Yeah. Because no one’s going to ever say, “Oh, I just don’t know how to do my job.” I mean, maybe someone’s going to admit that, but it is a bit of trying to read between the lines. I do think it’s also, usually, hopefully you have people on your team who you can check with – not in a like “isn’t our boss an idiot” kind of gossipy way, but in a “how did you see that meeting go?” I think you have to check your understanding with other people who you trust on your team or in the organization. People have reputations in organizations. You can often find out a lot by having coffee with someone in another division and saying, “How are you all seeing the work we’re doing?” You’re going to pick up a lot of cues on how people will understand your manager and their competence level. It’s never going to be black and white like, “my manager is competent or incompetent,” but trying to see the big picture, ascertain what’s going on. Then, like I was saying, it’s really a matter of how much compensation are you willing to do for them, and you should do that in a boundaried way. Boundaried both in terms of your time – you do not need to do two jobs, but if there are things you can step in on, things you can take on and actually see it as a learning experience, right? So, I’m actually getting to try out what it’s like to present to the senior leadership team, or I’m getting some experience in setting strategy because my boss doesn’t know how to set strategy. Then, also boundaried in that you’re not going to do it completely behind the scenes. To use Mita’s advice from earlier of, “Hey, I’d love to be with you when we present this to the broader organization at the all staff,” and making the request that you get the credit. The situation you don’t want to get into is where you’re constantly covering for them, and no one knows that you’re doing that, so, you’re getting no credit. You’re overworked. You’re burnt out and resentful. So, the last piece of advice I would say is just take care of yourself. Really be clear with yourself about what you’re willing to do and what is just too much.
MITA MALLICK: Amy, why didn’t I meet you several years ago? Such valuable advice, because exactly to your point, I didn’t draw boundaries, which is why I’m much better at it now. But also this idea of overcompensating, thinking it would get me promoted and it didn’t because to your point, people didn’t know I was covering for the incompetent boss. So, that was the missing link. But here I was taking on all these opportunities as learning opportunities, thinking it’s going to help me get promoted, but guess what? No one knew I was doing all that work.
AMY GALLO: Yeah. I have a family member… I have to be careful because he would be very upset if I explained who he was and about the situation. But he had a boss who truly did not know how to do the technical aspects of their job. So, his decision was, “I’m going to make her look good. It’ll help our department. We’ll get the resource and the recognition,” and I remember checking in with him three months after we first talked about this. I’m like, “How’s it going?” He’s like, “She got promoted,” and he was horrified.
AMY GALLO: She even said to him, “I only got promoted because of you.”
VALERIE: Thank you so much.
AMY GALLO: Yeah.
MITA MALLICK: This is my story. Oh, my gosh.
AMY GALLO: Right. You have to be really strategic about making sure it’s visible. Again, not in the like, “By the way, I’m doing all the work,” but making sure you show up to the presentation, making sure you answer questions when people have questions, specific questions, chime in on the email that you’re CC’d on and say, “I can take that because I took care of this part of the presentation. So, I’m happy to respond there.” There’s a fine line between making your boss look good and making yourself look bad. And so, you really have to make sure that you’re putting yourself out there and you’re getting that recognition. Mita and Val, this has been such a fun conversation. I have learned a lot and I feel better equipped to manage up. So, thank you both.
MITA MALLICK: Oh, thank you so much for having me.
VALERIE: Thank you. This was really great guys. I mean, I love having your expertise to inform some of my future decisions.
AMY GALLO: I’m going to turn to you anytime I need the most appropriate gif for anything.
VALERIE: Oh, I am here for you.
AMY GALLO: Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Ian Fox and Hannah Bates. Robin Moore composed this theme music. This episode is part of our series, The Essentials. In it, we bring together management experts, in women working in essential industries, in order to cover the fundamentals and nuances of key career skills. Scroll through the show’s feed to find other Essentials episodes. You’ll see ones on negotiating strategically, being productive, managing stress and giving feedback, plus more are on the way. And if you want to go deeper on the topic of managing up and create a plan to practice what you’ve learned, check out Harvard Manage Mentor. It’s an online self-directed learning and skill building resource. Visit hbr.org/harvardmanagementor to see all the different skills the program can help you build, broaden and refresh. I’m Amy Gallo. Thanks for listening. Email us anytime at [email protected]