No boss likes being blind-sided by something that one of her or his subordinate managers had wind of in advance. To help me avoid this mistake, a very senior executive told me early in my management career that I should always keep in mind the difference between three things:
(1) those things I could handle and do on my own because they were fully within the authority delegated to me by my position;
(2) those things I could handle and do on my own because they were fully within the authority delegated to me by my position but prudence required informing my superiors just in case there were unforeseen ramifications needing some top cover; and
(3) those things I could not handle or do on my own without informing, and often getting the blessing of, my superiors.
Throughout my career, I never received better guidance for keeping those above me informed. But how to execute that advice since we are really talking about an endless series of judgment calls?
Not all bosses are the same. Their personalities, individual needs for information, and personal sense of what they should know, differ. We can err on the side of caution, try to tell them everything, and risk coming across as unsure of ourselves and always seeking their permission. Or, we can err on the side of trying to show them we can handle things on our own and risk leaving them uninformed about matters that should legitimately involve them.
I believe it helps as a manager if you begin by recognizing the fundamental importance of managing up by keeping your boss well informed. The next step involves taking the time to assess your boss’s personality, operating style, and information needs. Does your boss want all the details or just the big picture? Finally, since two of the three categories I mentioned above involve providing some information to the boss, be prepared to err on the side of upward communication more often than not.
Over time as your relationship with individual superiors develops, your judgment calls and feel for what needs communicating — the “just thought you should knows” — will improve. So also will your confidence in asking for permission to act only when absolutely necessary. I always preferred, when needing permission, to phrase my communication in a way that offered my thoughts on what should be done unless he or she thought otherwise. You might be surprised to find that this approach works far more often than you might think and demonstrates your ability as a problem solver.
But what if you don’t like your boss and don’t much care if they succeed? I’m sorry, but that is no excuse for sabotage or attempts to undermine her or him by keeping them in the dark. Over time, you will only hurt yourself. Moreover, such behavior undermines the organization’s management structure and hinders organizational performance. Doing the right thing is important even when you dislike your boss. So keep them informed.