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Tips for Managing Up

By Daniel Bobinski

If you’ve ever read about why people quit their jobs, you know it rarely has to do with pay and almost always has to do with having a bad boss. If I’m doing a workshop and ask for a show of hands for how many people have been mismanaged, invariably, almost every hand goes up. This means the problem is fairly universal, but quitting doesn’t have to be the only option. Sometimes you can make a huge impact in your workplace if you learn how to manage up.

Definitions vary, but I describe managing up as creating an environment in which your supervisor or boss is comfortable taking action based on your input. That said, to be successful at it, one must know and apply emotional intelligence. In fact, being able to manage up is one of the great benefits that comes from learning emotional intelligence.

Consider Rick, a nurse practitioner on the West Coast. Rick has observed that his supervising doctor is more concerned about people liking him than he is about following company policy. The doctor makes exceptions to rules whenever someone asks him to. This has happened so much that some of Rick’s peers and other employees are now taking advantage of the doctor’s kindness, and adherence to policy has pretty much gone out the window.

Can those requests be accommodated? “Yes,” Rick says, “but managing all the work-arounds steals energy that we should be using to take care of patients. Those policies are in place for a reason, and it places a burden on management when we are constantly making exceptions.”

Rick refers to this trend in his workplace as sloppy management, and he fears it will lead to patients not getting proper care. Or, worse yet, it will lead to an overall relaxed attitude toward policies that could create serious mistakes.

Take note of what you observe

As I mentioned, managing up is much easier if one understands emotional intelligence. One of the first steps is take note of what you observe. Is your boss a mover and shaker or a deliberate rule follower? Is he or she a talkative people person or more reserved and analytical? This is a powerful starting point, because if your boss has a style that is significantly different from yours, you will need to learn how to adapt.

The above observations have to do with behavior, and if you become a student of the DISC language, you can become adept at identifying behavioral styles and their tendencies. DISC stands for Dominant, Influencing, Steady, and Conscientious, and learning the language is a good first step in learning emotional intelligence.

Another thing to observe is motivators. This, too, requires study, but learning what drives a person allows you to understand what they want. Rick studied motivators and realized that his boss had a “collaborative” internal driver. This meant Rick’s boss preferred to be supporting the team rather than leading it. With this knowledge, Rick connected with his boss on a fundamental level when talking about policy enforcement and helped him see the larger picture – and how making exceptions about policies was actually placing a burden on the rest of the team.

Support them where they’re weak

Anyone following this column for any length of time knows that every strength has a corresponding weakness. For example, people who make fast decisions bring a great strength to the team, but the corresponding weakness is they can overlook key details and make an ineffective decision. Conversely, people who analyze everything to make the best possible decision also bring a strength to the team, but the downside for them is they can get stuck in analysis paralysis.

You can “manage up” if you recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your boss and come alongside to help in his or her areas of weakness.

Understand your boss’s priorities

When you understand your boss’s goals and objectives you can decide which information is best to share during meetings or when having face-to-face conversations. Sharing information that is of little importance to his or her goals tends to build walls instead of a bridge. If you want your boss’s attention and an ability to influence his or her decisions, you need bridges, not barriers.

Ask questions that move things forward

Unless one is analyzing for what went wrong to determine how to do things differently in the future, discussing the past or trivial matters has little innate value. Rick tells the story of a coworker assigned to conduct an icebreaker for a regional meeting, and her discussion about the best toppings for an ice cream sundae went on for more than 15 minutes. Rick’s boss wasn’t doing anything to reel in the conversation, and the subject of ice cream toppings didn’t appear to have an end in sight. Wanting to help his boss get things back on track, Rick said, “I now have a cool catalog of ideas for ice cream sundaes. I’m curious though, can we find a way to segue this into the purpose of our meeting?”

Rick was sure to keep a smile on his face and some joviality in his voice, but he helped his boss by helping get things back on track.

The idea behind managing up is to create a mutual benefit. Think of it this way. You want to get a win, but you also want your boss to win. As outlined in Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” the habit of win-win thinking involves creating a mental framework with two components. First, have the consideration to seek the other person’s point of view – in this case, your boss. Second component is having the courage to stand up for your own point of view. This second component requires tact and timing, not brashness.

By thinking win-win and coming alongside to help, we can assist our bosses in being more effective and not letting their weaknesses get the best of them. Such are some of the mechanics of managing up.

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach him on his office phone at 208-375-7606 or through his website at



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