Managing Up: How to Be Your Own Advocate at Work

In an ideal world, you would have an ideal manager: One who makes time for you, mentors you, defines her expectations, gives you feedback, and supports you in getting your job done.

But in the real world, you might find that your relationship with your manager is less than ideal. You might have several managers, all of whom have major projects for you to do, and none of whom seem to have enough time to articulate a project’s priorities, answer your questions, or provide feedback. Even if you like and respect your supervisors, you might find yourself feeling that you’re torn in a million different directions—and that your junior-level status precludes you from ever telling anyone “no.”

But it’s a common misconception that you have to grin and bear it through a superior’s instructions, paying no regard to whether or not her demands are reasonable. Of course you need to do your job, do it well, and even exceed expectations—but you don’t have to let yourself become the girl whom everyone dumps on.

And if your manager can’t or won’t manage your workload, then you have to. This is called “managing up,” and it’s something you are allowed—and often encouraged—to do. If you do it well, it will make your job a lot easier—and you might even get positive feedback for exhibiting a take-charge, pragmatic attitude.

Here’s how to be your own advocate, while still maintaining your work ethic, your reputation, and your sanity.

1. Don’t Be Too Quick to Cast Yourself in The Devil Wears Prada

Unless your life is a shallowly developed book-turned-movie, your boss is probably not out to get you. She’s not trying to be rude, and she’s not trying to make you hate your job. If she’s asked you to do something unreasonable or impractical, it’s probably because she doesn’t realize the amount of time the project will actually take, or she’s unaware of the other projects filling your plate. So before you get mad, take a deep breath and start a conversation.

2. Ask for Deadlines

When you receive an assignment from a superior, you might feel the urge to rush around like a crazy person as you try to complete the project in record time. But you don’t always have to do that. In fact, the eager assumption that something is due long before it actually is can lead to unnecessary stress and the possibility of hastily made mistakes. Don’t be afraid to ask for a deadline. The request won’t make you look like you’re putting things off; rather, it will demonstrate that you’re organized and trying to plan your time.

3. Pay Attention and Ask Questions

When someone is outlining a project for you, make sure you pay attention and ask any clarifying questions as soon as you can—even if she’s trying to rush through the instructions. If you say “no problem” to an assignment when you’re not entirely sure what it entails, odds are you might look foolish when you come back hours later without having made any progress.

4. Ask for Priorities

If you’re feeling overloaded and you know you can’t reasonably take on another project, there’s no harm in asking your boss how she wants you to prioritize things, or even asking for an extension on a deadline. There’s no point in being a “yes (wo)man” if you just don’t have the time to deliver your best quality work. Explain your situation by saying something like: “I have these five projects on my plate, and I’m concerned that I won’t be able to finish them all by next week. Are there one or two that are less of a priority that I could tackle two weeks from now?”

Of course, make sure that you follow through on your promises. Your boss should respect your time, and you should respect hers. If you ask for a deadline or request to modify an assignment, make sure you stick to your side of the agreement.

Remember: being your own advocate isn’t just about managing your own workload—it’s about making sure you’re being the most effective, efficient, and valuable member of the team you can be. So be proactive, and you—and your boss—will be grateful in the long run.

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