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Five Keys to Managing Up in Your First Job

When my kids were little, they had almost opposite approaches to dealing with my husband and me. Watching our oldest in action was like taking a masterclass in managing up. Always cheerful and eager to please, she knew how to engage with us by listening, observing and taking mental notes on our personal preferences – making it easy for us to reward her. Our youngest, on the other hand, opted for a more contrarian approach, choosing to ignore our routine, instructions, likes and dislikes. He did things his way, spending a lot of time and energy fighting uphill battles and losing out until he wisely changed tactics and started learning how to manage us.

This family dynamic is really no different than what you find at work, even in your first job. Underestimating the control and influence that your boss has over your work life can be a costly strategic mistake if you want to move ahead. Yes, you can always change jobs in the hopes of getting a better boss, but at what cost? The faster you learn how to manage up, the better off you’ll be – early in your career and throughout it.

Managing up is about building a productive relationship with your boss so that at a minimum, you can meet your boss’s expectations and be recognized and rewarded for it. In your first job, here are five keys to managing up:

  1. Adapt to succeed. Observe your boss's work style and adapt to it. If you know how your boss likes to communicate, get work done, be kept in the loop and so on, you can meet your boss’s expectations by following his/her approach and preferences. If you are unsure about something, such as how a report should be prepared, ask a trusted colleague who has a solid relationship with your boss or ask your boss directly, being tactful and non-judgmental in your approach.

  2. Respect the hierarchy. Always follow your boss’s instructions even if you do not always agree with your boss. They may be based on information and insights that only your boss has. When you are new to your job, it’s important to show your boss that you can take direction and are a team player by respecting your team’s hierarchy and group dynamics.

  3. Be responsive. When your boss asks you to do something, be positive and show a sense of urgency so that your boss sees that his/her priorities are also yours. If you're unclear about your boss’s expectations, such as deadlines, don’t be afraid to ask questions. The key is to convey through your words, actions, tone and mannerisms that you have the “can-do” attitude that bosses like to see.

  4. Manage your expectations. If you don’t have the rapport that you’d like to have with your boss, don’t let that stand in your way of being your best at work. Adapt to succeed, respect the hierarchy, be responsive and have patience. Your relationship will either improve over time as you learn how to work with your boss or it won’t – and by being patient, you can be more thoughtful and strategic in your approach.

  5. Show your appreciation. Make it a point to express your gratitude with a thank-you when your boss makes time for your questions, takes you aside for constructive feedback or guidance, provides you with opportunities to learn, grow or shine, or goes out of his/her way to support you. Showing your appreciation can go a long way toward solidifying that relationship.

For more on how to succeed in your first job, please find my book, Starting Out Smart: The Unwritten Rules for Getting Ahead in Your First Job, on Amazon.

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