How to Develop More Empathy for Your Manager to Better Manage Up and Get What You Want

by Jason Evanish, CEO Get Lighthouse, Inc.

How often do you see your manager? How often are you their primary focus?

As an employee, there's a lot your manager doesn't know about your day-to-day. Like anyone at your company, they're busy with their own responsibilities, meetings, and tasks.

The same way they only get a narrow view of your world, your understanding of your manager can be equally limited.

What you both don't know can seriously affect your working relationship.

Managing up has a lot to do with developing good processes and the right amount of structure. The right update format at the right frequency can give your manager the peace of mind to let you run with projects you're comfortable with.

It's something we've talked quite a bit about before: 

Yet that barely scratches the surface of having a healthy, productive relationship with your manager.

develop empathy for your manager to better manage up

Managers need empathy, too

Being a manager can be a very isolating job. 

Many times your manager doesn't make enough time for you. Meanwhile, you have to focus on your team's problems when you meet with them. No one seems to care about you.

That's why an underrated part of managing up well is developing a little empathy for your manager.

Not only will it help them trust you more, but you'll better understand where they're coming from and why it may differ from how you see the world.

3 Ways to Develop Empathy to Better Manage up

Defined as, "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy can give you a window into your manager's thoughts and actions. 

With a bit of work, you'll not only be able to better understand their needs, you'll also build trust and a stronger working relationship. Both of these will help you then better manage up.

Here are three ways to develop empathy to better manage up.

Table of Contents:

  1. Walk a mile in their shoes
  2. Kick the elephants out of the room
  3. Ask good questions
  4. Further reading
  5. Frequently asked questions
better manage up by walking a mile in their shoes

1) Walk a mile in their shoes

Some old adages are shaky at best, but this bit of conventional wisdom couldn't be more true (and useful, in this case).

By taking the time to think about what it would be like to be your manager (what they must be thinking, feeling, their responsibilities, what their day is like), you not only develop empathy for them, but useful insights. 

User ‘geoffchan23' summed this up well in this comment on HackerNews talking about one on one agendas:

"I would use this time to find out how your manager is doing in his/her role. Find out how you can help them. Talk to them about their frustrations and how they are feeling.

Just because they are your manager doesn't mean you need to treat them like a boss all the time. Show them some care and empathy. It can go a long way for your career.”

You might not be their manager, but that doesn't mean you can't take charge of some aspects of your relationship with them.

For example, ask yourself:

  • What are my manager's goals?
  • What pressures are they under? 
  • What helps them do their job?

Try to understand their world and you may be surprised by the impact it can have. You'll know why they may seem really stressed, the projects they care most about, and how to more effectively communicate with them.

Shouldn't my manager be doing this kind of stuff?

It's true that an effective leader should be self-aware and thus working on many of these things already, but they can't do it alone. 

Good leaders should work to identify their strengths and weaknesses and build relationships with their individual team members. They should also work to identify and work through issues affecting the team.

The average manager has a lot on their plate, though, so they'll appreciate any effort you make to help. 

Also, not every manager is a good leader. Emotionally intelligent leaders understand the value of listening to their team member's thoughts and ideas and of building strong relationships to improve rapport, build trust, and generally make everyone happier.

However, a new or bad manager might not take the time to do these things. They might not have any idea that an issue is building which could eventually cause the loss of a wave of key employees.

Whether they properly appreciate your effort or not isn't in your control. One thing, though, is for certain: by taking the time to figure out what issues are affecting the team and letting them know, you're making your life easier by averting a disaster that could inevitably affect you. 

you can better manage up by getting the elephants out of the room

2) Kick the elephants out of the room

In a Facebook post detailing her return to work from bereavement leave after the sudden loss of her husband, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talked about how difficult it was navigating the often awkward and uncertain responses of her co-workers. 

The solution, she realized, was to open up no matter how uncomfortable it was: 

"I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in… and that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be.”

To take on this major elephant in the room, Sandberg let her co-workers ask her anything and she answered honestly. This helped her team know what to say, and when it was okay to start talking about more work-related things.

Thanks to these discussions, the awkwardness gave way to a new, open dialogue and a sense of psychological safety. The issue wasn't an issue anymore, as Sandberg described it:

"One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, ‘It's the elephant.'

Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.”

Sandberg was able to face the death of her husband with her team. Can you courageously face the biggest elephants with your manager?

Help your manager by opening up

This isn't just relevant for managers, though. Often, you'll be aware of an issue that your manager isn't. 

A 2015 survey by Interact found that 69% of employees try to sidestep communicating negative information to their manager, while 37% won't end up communicating that negative information at all. 

It can be hard for managers to get some information and candor from their team. Be courageous and make their life a little easier by doing your part to bring up issues. Even the toughest elephants can be kicked out if you take a deep breath and talk about it directly.

Don't be the kind of person Andy Grove writes about that waits until the end of a one on one to drop a zinger. Instead, take a deep breath, and bring it up with plenty of time to discuss it, and maybe a few ideas to help resolve it.

better manage up

If you don't tell your manager about important problems, all you're doing is setting up for a bigger problem later. This not only damages their trust in you, but can get them into a fire fighting, reactive management mode.

The more they get used to reacting to short-term issues in real-time, the less they're spending planning the long-term critical elements that will keep the team productive and happy. This cycle then breeds more short-term issues, making matters worse over time. 

If it gets to that point, your manager may end up with significantly less time for you and not enough energy to work on issues you may be having. It's a vicious cycle that is hard to control once you're in it.

Instead, do yourself a favor and bring up problems to your manager as they arise, sooner than later. They'll appreciate it. If it's hard to get time with your manager in the moment something comes up, use your 1 on 1s to bring up issues like this so you have plenty of time to discuss and work through it.

better manage up by asking questions

3) Ask good questions

One of the best ways to get to know your manager is to ask them questions in your one on ones. 

While most of the time your one on ones should be focused on you, consider bringing some of your own questions as well for your manager. The right questions can help you better understand them, and make both of your work lives easier.

(While you're at it, to make sure you're doing everything you can to make the most of one on ones with your manager, read: 7 Essential Tips for Effective 1 on 1 Meetings with Your Manager.)

Questions to manage up

If you're not sure what to ask, try some of these questions designed to help you better manage up:

  • For understanding your manager's goals and priorities: 
    • What are some things I could do better or differently to help you succeed even more?
    • Here are my top X priorities. Do these align with your priorities?
  • For understanding how your manager thinks: 
    • What part of my work are you most comfortable and familiar with? What parts of my work are things you haven't done as much yourself?
    • What have team members that frustrated you or were challenging to work with done or failed to do?
  • For anticipating what your manager wants: 
    • If I need help with something, what's the best way to get your input or support on something? (Good if your manager has a hands-off style and for figuring out how they want you getting input/support from them.)
    • What's one thing I could do differently or better that would make your life easier?

Listen carefully to their answers, as they'll reveal how you should handle situations going forward.

Even if you had the most Machiavellian manager, you would still have your notes from this discussion to show that you made a valid effort to support them. Meanwhile, for most well meaning managers, you'd now know what they need, so you can deliver it.

In addition to asking questions, consider showing them work you have. Ask for their feedback. See what tweaks you can make. If it takes you roughly the same amount of time to do it a way that's easier or better for them, why not do it? They'll appreciate it and you'll have made your life easier moving forward. 

better manage up by at least trying

You owe it to yourself to try.

This may sound like a lot of work and effort on your part. And it is. 

But ask yourself:

  • Who decides when or if you get promoted?
  • Who advocates for you to get a raise?
  • If the company struggles, who decides who stays and who is let go?

In all cases, your manager is heavily involved, if not the ultimate decider.

Therefore, it's well worth the time and effort to try to improve your relationship and better manage up with your manager. 

At best, you create a much-improved relationship and make your work easier and better. You might even find ways to lobby to improve work for yourself as you develop the relationship, all while avoiding the toxic, political approach of "sucking up".

That all sounds great, but what if they're the worst kind of boss? What if they're everything you see in Dilbert Comics and bad movies?

At least you can say with certainty you put in your best effort, and leave that job for your next one without saying, "what if?"

Most importantly, you'll then have learned better what to look for in your next boss so you do find the right match next time.

For more on how to better manage up and develop empathy, check out this further reading:

Frequently asked questions

Why is managing up important?

If you've ever had a bad manager, you know that people leave managers, not companies. By managing up, you can avoid many potential issues and generally make both of your lives easier. 

Sure, it's partly your manager's responsibility to improve your working conditions– but that doesn't mean it's entirely up to them. You have the power to make real change that creates a positive impact on your working experience. 

By working together with your manager, you can overcome issues, improve teamwork, and generally make everyone, including you, happier.  Take the time to work on managing up and you may be surprised how it improves your mood at work.

How do you manage up effectively?

The keys to better manage up with your manager include: 

  • Building rapport with your manager
  • Knowing your manager's priorities and goals
  • Learning and anticipating their needs, and
  • Understanding how they think and communicate

Building rapport is important because the better you know one another, the easier it will be to work with one another. The better you understand your manager's goals, the more you can help them reach those goals (and they'll appreciate it).

Then, learning and anticipating their needs is important because that gives you a way of avoiding potential issues or fixing them when they're small. Finally, understanding how they think and communicate will help you anticipate issues, as well as prepare information, projects, and tasks they need in the best way for them. 

Jason Evanish

Jason Evanish

As the founder and CEO of Get Lighthouse, Inc, Jason and the Lighthouse team have helped managers grow their leadership skills in dozens of countries around the world. They’ve worked with a variety of companies from non-profits to high growth startups, and government organizations to well known, publicly traded companies. Jason has also been featured in publications including NPR, the Wall Street Journal, and Fast Company.

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