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3 ways to manage up today

Executives are busy, and how you communicate with them makes a difference -- especially when you need something from them.

5 min read


3 ways to manage up today

Susan Fowler

The president of the company I worked for patiently listened as I described a challenging issue. When I finished explaining my problem, there was an awkward pause. Finally, she asked: “And, you need from me … what?”

I had no idea what I needed from her. Duh. If I didn’t know what I needed, how could I expect her to know? Embarrassing. But a learning moment — one of several that led me to explore the much-needed and under-appreciated skill of self-leadership.

Over the years, three tips for managing up have proven profoundly simple and effective. I can almost guarantee they will improve your productivity and relationship with your boss at the same time. And, can you implement them face-to-face or virtually, starting today.

1. Don’t ask a dumb question

Yes, there’s such a thing as a dumb question. “Are you busy?” “Do you have a minute?” “Can you talk today?” 

Whether you ask in person or through text or email, these are dumb questions. How many managers do you know who are sitting around twiddling their thumbs? Yes, they have a minute (they have 525,600 minutes a year, as the song reminds us). And, of course, they can talk, maybe just not right now.

Dumb questions put the burden on your manager to decipher your intent. It reminds me of the time a young man asked me, “Are you busy tonight?” I thought he was asking me out on a date. It turns out he wanted me to house-sit his dog so he could go out with someone else. Ouch.

Eliminate the dumb questions and manage up using the “I need” phrase to state your request directly or to ask for direction or support:

  • “I need 30 minutes of your time today or tomorrow to discuss my next steps on this project.”
  • “I need instructions for formatting this report.”
  • “I need 45 minutes to discuss three solutions I’ve formulated to solve the problem we’re having with accounts receivables. I’m available at times listed below, but if none of them work, I’ll do my best to accommodate your schedule.”

Ironically, by clearly stating what you need, you won’t come across as needy, but as self-possessed and aware of how valuable time is — yours and especially your manager’s.

2. Underpromise and overdeliver

You’ve heard this advice before. It only makes sense to meet or exceed expectations instead of letting people down. But how do you do it intentionally? How can you do it starting today?

  • If you have an hourlong meeting with your manager scheduled, end it after 50 minutes.
  • If you promise a project completed by the 15th, deliver it on the 12th.

A fascinating series called “GOATs” (greatest of all time) features Walter Iooss Jr., a famous sports photographer. He has captured all the greatest athletes on film for the past 58 years (including 51 Super Bowls and over 300 covers of Sports Illustrated!). 

Walter believes one of the keys to his success is taking less time than expected to capture a shot. When told, “You get 10 minutes with Michael Jordan,” Walter gets his shot in nine. He’s convinced that exceeding people’s expectations demonstrates competence but, more importantly, builds trust — especially when it comes to time.

3. Flip the feedback

I keep beating this drum, and for a good reason (see this SmartBrief article). Studies show that being proactive during the day reduces your stress and generates vitality. 

One of the most valuable and practical techniques for managing up and improving your well-being is flipping the paradigm for receiving feedback. Cut to the chase and solicit feedback instead of anxiously waiting or hoping to get beneficial information while it’s still relevant. Try it today and be amazed.

For example, after leading a meeting attended by your manager, ask: “I intended to generate active participation in today’s team meeting. From your perspective, what did I do that you thought was effective? Can you think of two or three ways I could improve my approach during our next meeting?”

I urge you to try the “I need” phrase, underpromising and underdelivering, and flipping the feedback beginning today. Self-leadership means you have the mindset and the skillset to accept responsibility and take the initiative to get what you need to succeed. That includes managing your manager—and accepting her gratitude as you help her succeed, too.


Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

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