There are lots of tools and training courses for bosses on how to manage people, but we hardly ever talk about how people can manage their bosses.   “Managing up” is being able to speak up to your boss about how they can support you more, for example to ask for help, to share your concerns about your work or team, or even to ask them to change how they work.   Finding the courage to speak up to your boss can be difficult, but it is more important now than it ever was before. 

Over the last 18 months bosses have realised that people can be trusted to work from home, but now that we are starting to come back into the office, the risk is we go back to the way things were pre-COVID and lose some of the good things we learned by working differently.  If your team are planning on a hybrid style of working (partly in the office and partly remote), conversations with your boss are essential, so you can be sure they know what works for you (and crucially, what doesn’t).

Some of the reasons why you might need to speak up to your boss:

  • Your boss is not giving you the support you need – maybe they are changing their mind a lot, giving you extra work, or they are putting you under unnecessary pressure, or even using language or behaviour that you find offensive
  • Your team have fallen into new working habits, like answering emails at all hours or being expected to start an hour earlier because you weren’t commuting, and you want to reset back to a calmer pace of work as we come out of the crisis
  • You are worried about coming in to the office – you may be anxious about being around lots of people, or you don’t feel as confident about your job as you did before
  • You feel like some people on the team have used the pandemic as an excuse not to do their work, and it’s making you stressed or overworked
  • You are feeling left out or excluded at work because you can’t be there in person and when they are all in the office you’re worried they will be talking about you
  • Over lockdown you loved not dealing with people eating smelly food at lunch, gossiping by the coffee machine or behaving unprofessionally, and you are worrying about facing them again

If you have a good boss, they probably already support you and are aware of some of your concerns.  But even bosses with the best of intentions are not mind-readers, so you do need to speak up if something is bothering you. 

Here are 7 approaches for speaking up to your boss:

  1. The earlier you say something the easier it will be.  Don’t wait for a good moment or for something bad to happen more than once before you say something.  If you postpone a difficult conversation, it will become even more difficult the longer you leave it
  2. Make it about you, not them.  Start with “I feel…”.  Instead of saying “You always use sexist language and you are a really offensive person”, say “I feel really upset and embarrassed when you use that word, and I’d feel a lot better if you didn’t”.
  3. Ask “How can we…”  In a tricky situation, you may not know the answer, but you can start with asking a genuinely positive question.  For example “How can we make sure we stop people from overworking now that we are coming out of the crisis?” or “How can we use this chance to make the office a more positive place than it was before COVID?” 
  4. Be ready with solutions.  If you’ve got something worrying you, explain the issue to your boss, and have a couple of different solutions ready, showing you are proactive and offering them the final decision
  5. Understand what they want.  Listen to how your boss talks and what they talk about, and use that to show you understand the pressures they are facing.  If you know they are concerned about the end of year figures, help them to see how solving your issue will give you more time to help them with the end of year reporting
  6. Schedule small talks.  It’s far better to have lots of smaller conversations with your boss where you can share concerns than saving it all up for one big one.  Schedule regular time where you chat, so that the lines of communication are always open and can pick up any small issues early, so they never become big problems. 
  7. Work on it together.  Instead of handing over a problem to your boss to sort out, offer to join them to work together to solve it.  That way you are their partner in crime, rather than leaving them to it and wishing them luck as you walk out the door!

In these times of uncertainty, we need to communicate more often than ever.  This is our chance to reset the way we work for the better – we don’t need to go back to how things were pre COVID, and we certainly don’t want to keep working in the same way we did during COVID.  Tell your boss how you feel, ask them for help and offer to join them on the journey to create an even better normal than we ever had before.

Featured in The Metro July 2021