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Managing up: Learn to manage your boss

Personal relationships are key in any company, but are especially important for senior-level managers. They are largely what determines people’s potential impact as leaders and the pace and direction of their professional development.

Successful relationships depend much less on hierarchy than on empathy, favors, shared interests and trust. Cultivating them means, soon or later, discovering their potential to solve problems, streamline processes, achieve objectives and make progress in an organization.

Become a two-way leader

It’s one thing for a professional to be naturally friendly and quite another to be able to build a network of important contacts. A leader’s popularity must be recognized by key individuals in the organization. Those people include, of course, their superiors and team members.

In this corporate hive, two-way management is an art form mastered by those middle and senior-level managers who take their role as a link to heart. These leaders know that excellent results are impossible without excellent employees and are committed to their job, the strategy and the organization.

How to redirect your relationship with your boss

Even when a professional reaches the top levels of the org chart, it’s very difficult for them to be fully committed to a project and develop all their skills if they distrust their boss or if the relationship is strained. Plus, cultivating a healthy relationship with a superior is fundamental for pushing projects forward, working more effectively and having more opportunities for promotion in the company.

Although it’s not easy to redirect a relationship that’s stuck, a good first step is to identify the source of the tension:

1. Communication

Do you seldom meet with your boss? Would it be worth changing the format, the space or the tone of the conversations?

2. Insecurity

This could be coming from either the subordinate or the boss.

3. Lack of motivation or performance

This arises when a superior thinks a professional isn’t contributing enough or when an employee feels undervalued.

4. Adaptation

Confusions can occur when a boss and an employee don’t know each other well enough yet.


Once the source of the tension has been diagnosed, we recommend following these steps to strengthen the trust and communication between the two sides. Remember that relationships are cultivated day by day, with what may seem like small gestures:

  • Always use constructive criticism.
  • If you don’t agree with a decision, express your opinion delicately and at the right time and place.
  • To gain your boss’s trust, show that your work is valuable and loyal.

Keys to reporting: Offer solutions and show empathy

One way of working on communication between employees and superiors is learning to report correctly, especially when it comes to problematic situations or when the relationship is already strained.

When you have to “elevate” a challenge to your boss, try to be very rigorous and decisive:

1. Describe the situation

Explain the problem in detail, how you’ve tried to solve it and what the consequences may be for the team and for the company.

2. Suggest possible solutions

Assess the potential consequences and applicability of your suggestions and defend the one you would choose.

3. Accept your responsibility

Be part of the solution and involve yourself in the project, even if you don’t agree with your boss’s final decision.


Another essential ingredient in relationships with superiors is empathy. Empathy, in the business world, means understanding the situation, the challenges and the priorities of our bosses. Having the humility to ask them about their goals without taking them for granted, putting ourselves in their shoes and showing them that we are honestly trying to understand their position are attitudes that will bring us closer on a personal level. This also makes it possible to anticipate the moments when they will be more receptive to our demands and what their responses to certain events will most likely be.

In the other direction of these relationships, if a senior-level manager shows empathy and builds trust with their employees, they can convey the concerns of their team to their own bosses and get ahead of potentially serious problems for the company.

Political intelligence: Maintain contacts throughout the organization 

Beyond bosses and employees, successful managers build networks of important contacts across the entire company. These include their subordinates’ teams, their former team, other company leaders, suppliers, partners, clients, and more. Great leaders always leave a visible trail of allies wherever they go, which sooner or later becomes one of the main drivers of their progress and impact.

As leaders grow, they increasingly depend on all the people they work with and should accept more responsibility for the successes and the failures — not just of their direct teams — but of the entire organization.

Ultimately, political intelligence is based on a very simple idea: If people are of prime importance to a company, their relationships must be as well. A company cannot be cutting-edge if the relationships between its employees are strained, and the most highly qualified professionals won’t want to join a project they think is toxic for that reason.

Helping to create an environment of healthy relationships in the company largely means understanding that all of us – even those at the highest levels – have a boss. It means accepting that your boss is doing the best they can with the knowledge and resources they have. And it means assuming that, as a human, their intentions are positive and they want the best for their teams and for the organization, even if sometimes their decisions don’t benefit us personally.

In IESE’s executive and master’s programs, our students work on their communication skills and their ability to establish key connections in their organizations.

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