How to Hire Candidates Who Can Manage Their Managers

The most important interview question to assess for managing up.

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Dec 13, 2023

Have you ever worked for a boss who didn’t understand or agree with your big ideas? Whose leadership style was a bit too hard or soft for your tastes? Who moved too fast or too slow? A boss with whom you felt a bit out of sync?

That’s the reality for a frightening number of employees. In fact, research indicates that around two-thirds of people would prefer that their boss have a different style than the one they actually have.

For anyone in a hiring role, this means that you’ve got to be prepared for the possibility that your new hire will end up working for a manager with whom they don’t click seamlessly. And that, in turn, means that you should consider choosing candidates that have some skill at managing up.

Managing up is simply working with and adapting to one’s boss in order to achieve the best possible outcomes for both parties. It’s understanding the boss’ style and adapting your approach so that you can get the resources, support, and approvals you need to be successful in your job.

One of the simplest ways to test a candidate’s effectiveness at managing up is to ask them this interview question: “Could you tell me about a time your boss rejected your idea or opinion?”

You might feel a temptation to add a few words to the end of the question, like “and how did you overcome that,” but resist that urge. Research finds that when most hiring managers add those words to the end of their questions, they essentially give away the correct answer. But when you invite candidates to discuss the painful parts of getting rejected by their boss, you’ll quickly learn whether this is someone who can adapt their approach to work with a less-than-ideal boss.

Here’s a real-life answer to the question: “Could you tell me about a time your boss rejected your idea or opinion?”

“My immediate supervisor is not as firmly grounded in mathematical concepts as me. It is often hard to convince them that a particular approach to numerical analysis does not conform with the laws of mathematics or probability. He frequently tries to use intuition to solve mathematical problems. Probability is specifically not grounded in intuition, so his intuitive answers are often lacking in rigor or based on incorrect processes. My inputs are regularly rejected because of his lack of mathematical understanding and appreciation.”

Does this sound like someone who’s going to be willing to adapt their approach to manage up? Their response comes across as dismissive and condescending toward their supervisor. Phrases like “not as firmly grounded in mathematical concepts as me” suggest a lack of respect for their boss’ expertise and perspectives.

The candidate blames their supervisor for rejecting their ideas, suggesting it’s solely due to their supervisor’s lack of understanding. There’s no acknowledgment of their own role in these situations, like considering if they could communicate their ideas more effectively. This lack of self-reflection is a bad sign for being able to manage up.

The candidate does not mention any attempts to address the disagreement constructively or find a mutually acceptable solution. Nor do they mention what they learned from these experiences or how they adapted.

Maybe the boss really did lack the candidate’s mathematical prowess. But even if that were true, this wouldn’t be the first time in history that an employee believed they were smarter than their boss. And managing up is all about finding ways to bridge that gap and build sufficient trust to enable both parties to succeed.

Not every person you hire is guaranteed to be assigned the perfect boss for them. But as long as you hire people with a modicum of aptitude for managing up, they’ll likely still be able to enjoy a productive career and healthy working environment.

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