Lead Artfully

How to manage up and across at work

October 12, 2020
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how to manage up and across

It is not only important to manage those you may lead and yourself, but also influence your boss (managing up) and your peers (managing across).  This is what we mean by learning how to manage up and across.

Understanding how your boss ticks

As we all know, bosses come in all forms.  If you are fortunate then you will work for an organisation that puts talent ahead of nepotism or expedience.  A boss who you trust, and who likewise trusts you, is the foundation of a healthy team.   When you achieve this you can start applying your skills effectively to influence positive outcomes for yourself, your organisation, and your team.   This is why you need to be good at managing up and across.

But if you find it difficult to work with your superiors in general then chances are high you will be unhappy in your work, and often feel under pressure.  If the cause of these difficulties aren't based on conflicting values or ethics, then they should not be able to be worked through.

Sizing up the boss

To begin, have a good look at your boss, the person who has authority over you.  To be able to manage up and across, then understanding how the boss ticks is crucial.  Here are some of the different types along with behaviours.  Some of which may be challenges that you will have to adjust your approach to overcome:

> Someone who you trust implicitly.

> A down-to-earth, nice person.

> New, who you have never met before.

> One who works in another location from you, and you rarely see.

> An insecure boss.

> A know it all, someone who regards themselves as a font of wisdom.

> An indecisive boss.

> A micro-manager or control freak.

> Someone who gives you conflicting messages.

> A hands-off boss.

> Purely reactive and does not seem to plan well.

Having sized them up, get to know them.  Find out as much as you can, such as:

> What do they value the most both as a person and at work?

> How do they prefer to communicate? In person, phone, or email?

> Do they like details and facts, or prefer people who get to the point?

> Are they a pragmatist, or prefer deep consultation and analysis?

> Are they intuitive?

> How have they been shaped by past career experiences?

> What role are you expected to play?

By understanding what makes your boss tick then you can start to identify what motivates them.  This is not to manipulate them, but to better understand them.

[To learn more about motivation, check out our related article.]

Also, if you are new to the organisation then get in contact with your predecessor and others who know them.  Set off on the right foot, ask them how they want to work with you and what they feel is important?  Also, as a recent HBA article puts it, "don’t assume your expertise is self-evident.  Instead, establish your expertise before doing business with new colleagues".   You can do this by explaining how you have added value in similar roles or situations when you first meet.

Aligning with your boss

When you successfully align with your boss:

  1. You embrace the mission they gave you.
  2. A positive working relationship has developed.
  3. You can anticipate their needs.
  4. If you see problems coming, then they trust you to let them know before they have to react. You never let them get blindsided.
  5. You are effective in your role. As Steve Covey said in a best-selling book[1]," Effective people do two things: They strive to do excellent work, and they prioritize."
  6. Your boss knows about your talents and how to best use them.
  7. You do not overuse their time and catch-up only when you need to.
  8. The boss learns to appreciate you.   You consistently under-promise and over-deliver.
  1. You never play games. Most people soon see through it when people aren’t being authentic and have a sixth sense[2] and somehow or other the good ones see through this sort of deception instantly.
  2. You take responsibility of your mistakes, and your boss learns to trust your judgement.
  3. The boss sees you as a professional who can be relied on to stay above office politics.

The key to managing up

Once you have a healthy relationship with your boss, and they respect your talent and ability to work as part of a team, they will give your views greater weight and validity.  That is when you can begin to influence plans and outcomes.  The knowledge of how to manage up and across is a critical ability for any leader.

Managing Across

Next we look at the subtle differences with peer relationships.  Influencing the decisions and actions of your peers and co-workers is called managing across.  Most of us work in environments where we need to call on skills and resources from other teams to achieve results.  Especially when developing new products or services, or managing projects.

To successfully manage across an organisation, you likewise need to build the trust of your equals, so you can call on them when you need to.  Even though you have little or no organisational power over them.

Key tips for achieving this include:

  1. Maintain good working relationships with your peers and learn how they prefer to communicate. Is it in person, over the phone, or email?
  2. Play fair. There are times when you can help them, so make sure there is a bit of give and take.  Be there for them so they need you.  They will be far more willing return the favour when the time comes.
  3. Ask for advice and include them on decisions that may require their input later.
  4. Plan ahead and do not blindside them either. If you foresee issues that impact your peers, give them the heads up.
  5. Talk about rules of engagement. Ask them how they like to operate and collaborate.  This is paramount for keeping things professional.

Final thoughts

The success of an organization to a large extent is dependent on the management team working well together.  If key members act with self-interest rather than for the organization, the management team often become dysfunctional.  Cooperation is replaced by competition between members, which undermines teamwork.

A high-performance management team, on the other hand, is completely dedicated to the organisation's objectives.  It functions like a well-oiled machine.  And to further improve the performance of this well-functioning machine, there is one additional thing you should practice.  Be positive.   In addition to being a trusted team player, if you are optimistic, then your peers and your boss will appreciate it.  It helps maintain confidence across the group, even during the most challenging times.   That is truly the secret on how to manage up and across, well.


[1] Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. Simon & Schuster.

[2] Jon, B.R. (2017). Leadership And Led: Are you born to lead? Do you want to lead? The Sixth Sense? Destiny? Charisma? [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com


Recommended reading:

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People - Simon & Schuster

Leadership & Led, are you born to lead?  - BJ Roy

Managing Up - R Badowski