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Managing up: How to manage your boss

How to manage your boss

One of the questions I’m often asked is: “How do I get taken seriously at work?” And over my career I have asked myself that question as well. One way to build credibility in the workplace was explained by Dr Lynda Bourne recently at the PMI Global Congress EMEA in Dublin.

Let’s talk about managing up.

Dublin Convention Centre

Dublin Convention Centre

Managing upwards

Project managers aren’t the ones in charge. We work for the people at the top of the tree: project sponsors and senior executives. Managing upwards means managing sponsors and maintaining organisational commitment. It’s probably more accurate to think of it as advising upwards and it is one of the skills that Bourne says project managers often lack.

Bourne explained that no single stakeholder type should be considered as being more important than the others. Customers are not more important than technical staff. Vendors are not more important than employees. She said that the high priority stakeholders are the most important right now. You’ll have to work out who is the highest priority stakeholder for you.

“The only way to engage senior stakeholders so they help you when you need them is to start early and build credibility,” she said.

Provide the right information

“The only way to build those relationships is communication,” Bourne said. “There is absolutely nothing else.”

Managers are busy people. They do not like surprises. They need information but it must be specific to their needs and help them do their job and help them make their decisions.

Providing relevant information is one way to build credibility, and it helps them look credible to their bosses too. “Steer your ship along and provide them with the information they need to look good,” Bourne said.

Be helpful

Providing information is good, but think through what you are giving them and why. “The concept of ‘I’ll just do a report’ will not persuade people,” Bourne said.

Communication must be:

  • Purposeful: why are you giving this report? Is it to change an attitude, to get a decision or something else?
  • Targeted: specific to the stakeholder.
  • Appropriate in form and content: does the exec want a diagram? A spreadsheet? Have you even asked them?
  • Monitored for effectiveness: check in with how the attitude-changing is going. Has the communication had any impact? If not, change it.

Be the person who is helpful. Recognise that your project is only one of a hundred and that you have to help them manage their time as well. This helps you build up what Bourne calls ‘credibility points’ for when things go wrong.

“The only way to build those relationships is communication. There is absolutely nothing else.” Lynda Bourne

Be intelligently disobedient

Managers are normal people. They might not be able to have all the answers because they may still be learning their job. Be sympathetic and realise they have jobs to do too.

“You do not always have to follow the rules,” Bourne said.  “If your boss is requesting that you do something that you know is not the best thing for the boss, the organisation, the team and yourself, then you must speak up.”

Bourne talked about the concept of intelligent disobedience. Intelligent disobedience is what they teach guide dogs. It helps them know when to ignore the request of the blind person when crossing the road, for example, is not safe.

In the workplace it translates to having the confidence to challenge decisions. Being able to say no to your manager helps you build credibility.

Top tips for advising up

Bourne gave us some tips for helping managers to help us:

  • Support the transition to the C-suite
  • Recognise that it takes a while for people to change their mindsets
  • Know that they need to advise up too
  • Remove the idea that risk is bad news
  • Build a sponsor culture from above and below
  • Understand their drivers and expectations
  • Work to build credibility and trust

“Never assume that you know enough about your stakeholders as their views will change,” Bourne said. “You have to constantly review and maintain those relationships. Do not assume that you have ever done enough to engage them.”
Tips on how to manage up and help build a great relationship with your boss

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About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin FAPM is a professional project manager and award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.
Elizabeth lives in the UK with her family. She uses her organisation and project management skills at home, and also to help other bloggers at Totally Organised Blogging.


  1. Rotimi says

    Very helpful article. Being intelligently disobedient is so important for building credibility but I find a lot of managers, and project managers telling the story that they believe their senior stakeholders want to hear instead. It can make life difficult in the moment when you are the only dissenting voice.

    • Elizabeth Harrin says

      Rotimi – I totally agree. It’s hard to be that lone voice but in terms of building a professional reputation, it can pay off. Assuming that is, that your management team are mature enough to know how to deal with it when you tell them the truth!

  2. Geoff Crane says

    Great post, Elizabeth, and very important! I had a senior executive tell me once after a meeting, “Geoff, the answer to the question in there was ‘yes or no’ but boy, you just kept right on going, didn’t you?” 

    Of course, after that, I had another senior executive tell me, in a different job, “Geoff I know you’re going for brevity but if you don’t give me details I can’t help”.

    Managing upward communications is a bit of an art, and takes a good understanding of the people you’re trying to communicate with. It’s one of the reasons I find maintaining good relationships around your projects so very important!

    • Elizabeth says

      Everyone wants something different, don’t they? We have the unenviable job of working out what they want to know before they even know they need to know something about the project!

      • Geoff Crane says

        HAHA that’s the truth! Ever see the movie Gosford Park? Helen Mirren says it best:

        “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates him from the others? It’s the gift of anticipation. And I’m a good servant. I’m better than good, I’m the best—I’m the perfect servant. I know when they’ll be hungry, and the food is ready; I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”

        Stakeholder management, anyone? 🙂


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