How to Work with Your Manager Effectively

Tao Wang
9 min readApr 17, 2023


Work effectively with your manager

For most of us who work in companies, we have a manager to report to. One of the most important aspects that affects the workday experience, job success and career growth is how effectively you work with your manager. I would like to share a couple of thoughts on this topic and love to hear yours too.

First, what this article is and isn’t:

  • If your manager is really really bad and she doesn’t want you to succeed, you should simply find a new job. The article won’t help.
  • This is not a thorough list, and that would require a book. I intentionally will focus on only a small number of points that I personally consider the most valuable and practical.
  • If you are already very good at working with your manager, this might not help much.
  • Out of 10, if you rate yourself lower than 6 on how effectively you work with your manager, then read on. I believe this can help you reach the 7 to 9 range quickly.
  • Prerequisite: this article assumes that you have a mature personality and can self assess honestly and accurately. If not, you may want to work on that first.
  • The assumption is that your company is similar to a high tech company with a Silicon Valley culture and mindset. For instance, it is important to prioritize high ROI tasks, the culture encourages open mindset, communication, transparency, self driven etc.
  • This probably works best for engineering managers and directors. But it should work for senior or principal engineers too.

Understand the relationship with your manager

On a day to day basis, your manager decides your work scope, assignment, responsibility, and who you work with, and to some extent influence how you work. In performance review, the manager decides your rating and promotion.

What do you like to achieve in work?

You like to do impactful and rewarding work, make customers happy, deliver high quality results, and work well with teammates. You want to grow your skill set and career along the way. And you want to be paid more too.

You want to have autonomy in day to day work. In other words, you do not like your manager to micromanage.

In the relationship, you want to get support and guidance from your manager.

Note, this does not only apply to you. It applies to your manager too as she/he reports to a manager too.

What does the manager like to achieve?

From the manager’s perspective, she wants you to do an outstanding job in your role, help you grow your skill set and career. But she has a few goals that may or may not directly involve you.

  • Build a strong team: recruit talents, retain top performers, manage people issues and team performance, coach direct reports, etc.
  • She may need to step in for critical issues to work with some of her direct reports: customer escalations, delayed projects, people issues, cross team challenges, etc. Ideally, this is rare once a strong team is built.
  • She wants to scale herself out. She needs more capable leaders among her reports so she can delegate effectively and confidently.
  • She wants to get more time to think about strategic goals: roadmap, vision, team structure, process and more.
  • She likes to take more responsibility from her own manager and increases her work scope and impact.

To achieve all of the above goals, the manager has to use her time effectively. Namely, if a manager could spend minimal time with each report, it will be ideal. Note, in reality, now and then, one or two reports often consume >50% of a manager’s time spent with all reports.

What does the above mean?

Both you and your manager have incentive to work effectively as time is a very rare resource for the manager. You only have a small portion of your manager’s time to work with her, often in the format of a 1:1 meeting, plus some slack messages, emails and some meetings. 1:1 meeting should be your focus.

With limited time to work with your manager, I suggest focusing on the following areas to achieve high efficiency.

Align with your manager

Your major goal of 1:1 is to align with your manager. Once aligned, the rest is just strong execution which is under your own control. Break down the goals into three categories: short term, medium term and long term. Short term will cover matters in 1 to 2 week range. Medium is 1 to 3 months. And the long term is between 3 to 12 months.

The alignment is to solicit your managers’ input and agree on

  • Goals: whether they are realistic, with the right priority. What is the estimated cost and result?
  • Priorities: what to focus on, maintain or drop
  • Challenges and how you plan to handle that, and where you need your manager’s approval and help
  • Potential risks that you see
  • Your suggestions and proposals
  • Confirm approaches to execute certain tasks
  • The approach to work across teams and organizations
  • Understand your manager’s priority for the org
  • Culture for the org

There are a few things to pay attention to.

You do not want to discuss long term goals too frequently. There is no point in discussing career progress weekly or monthly unless you are in a very very junior role. A quarter or half a year is a better interval.

For the areas that you receive good input from the manager and where your manager looks interested, you should bring it up regularly.

Do not overload 1:1 meeting. In 1:1, cover pressing matters first, then the rest. Standing in your manager’s shoes, think what will be the most valuable topics to cover in each 1:1, retrospect on how the 1:1 actually goes, and adjust accordingly.

How do you know that you are well aligned with your manager? You will find that your manager is rarely surprised by what you want to achieve, what you are doing, how you do it, and what feedback the stakeholders will say about your work. If there are surprises, learn and adjust accordingly to avoid it in future. Do not target 100% which is mission impossible. Target 95% for no surprise and it should be achievable.

How quickly can you achieve good alignment with your new manager? You should expect to achieve >80% in a month, 90 to 95% in a quarter if you are fairly senior. It will take some time and multiple iterations but having this timeline as reference will be helpful.

What if my manager has no interest in the alignment? This is rare. Most likely that you have an inexperienced manager who is new to her role. Give her time in that case and work with her with patience. If not this case, you should try to figure out why, because alignment is key to your success.

Pay attention to your manager’s feedback

There are two common scenarios in which your manager gives you feedback. One is on the spot feedback: when you update her about some topics in 1:1 and actively ask for her input. Another is that your manager brings up some topic herself and gives you feedback. Either way, pay attention to the feedback, especially in the latter scenario.

There are a few common mistakes that people make.

My manager gave me some random feedback. The feedback is almost never random. Instead, it is very likely that your manager has thought carefully what feedback to give you and how exactly to give you. So do not make the mistake to ignore or downplay the feedback. Try to understand what the feedback is and it is okay to clarify with your manager. Sometimes, the manager might sugarcoat the feedback a bit or soften the tone a bit in the communication. Normally, this helps deliver the feedback more smoothly. But as a mature leader, you should understand the feedback objectively and deeply as it is, rather than be stuck too much to the sugarcoating part.

Sometimes, the manager might not share all feedback at once. One possibility of delayed feedback is the manager wants to be sure that the feedback is accurate and justified, that she needs more research and time to confirm. Another possibility is that there are too many pieces of feedback and the manager believes that it is too much for you to digest in one batch, thus deciding to break them into a few small batches.

Be open to feedback

You probably heard the word “Coachability”. If you are very resistant to feedback, your manager will hesitate in giving it to you. Eventually this will slow down and hurt the alignment. No one is perfect. You receive feedback, and your manager receives feedback from her manager too. Being open to feedback shows maturity and confidence, which is very important for a leader.

What if the feedback is wrong

First, it is unlikely to be wrong, at least from your manager’s perspective. If she believes it is wrong, she won’t have given that to you. Refer to the statement above: the feedback is almost never random.

If you still feel it is wrong, there are two ways to self assess it.

  • you can validate this objectively this way: what would my peers say about me on this topic? Not just a selective one peer but all peers. Would they say the same as the manager did, or at least a majority of them will say the same? Or they will 100% agree with me that the feedback is wrong.
  • Let us assume that the manager said that you need to improve communication. Rather than argue that your communication has no problem, think about who in your peers is great at the communication and what is the gap between you and that peer. Do not focus on “I am not bad at this”. Focus on why “I am not great at this”.

It is quite okay to talk with your manager, explain your point of view for the feedback, ask for a detailed example from your manager for you to understand the feedback. But do not sound too defensive. Again, it may be difficult to digest and receive negative feedback. Just remember no one is perfect, and receiving feedback is part of everyone’s professional life. Take it easy.

Pay attention to what is not spoken? Information does not only come from explicit communication, but also from what is NOT spoken. Let us make up an example. You finished a project and believe that you did an excellent job. But your manager said nothing. What is the gap? Unless your manager never recognizes great work of any team members, there is something off. You do not have to be confrontational in your 1:1 with the manager. Rather, ask this question to your manager: “is there anything that I could have done better in this project?”. Your manager’s response will reveal why she does not believe the project was done with an excellent rating, or she will simply say that “ There is nothing to improve. You already did an excellent job”, although the latter case is unlikely.

Be self driven

You need to be self driven and don’t rely fully on your manager to improve the efficiency of this working relationship between you two.

A common mistake is to wait for the manager. Isn’t that my manager’s responsibility to help me and coach me? The answer is a partial yes. A manager’s top priority is to improve the whole team’s performance, that might or might not mean that she will focus on working with you. In some sales books, it was discussed how a grocery store manager can improve the store’s business performance in a few ways:

  • Guide the under performer, or manage out
  • Coach the top performer
  • General training to the whole team
  • Execute the task by herself
  • Hiring
  • Team or process changes
  • Other approaches

The reality is that coaching is a cost and the manager will have to consider its ROI in comparison with ROI of other approaches. Understanding this, you will know that it is to your best interest to be self driven, as working effectively with your manager matters more to you than to her.

Another mistake is to assume things are fixed. It is not. Assuming your manager assigned you to a project that you do not feel very passionate about, you feel it is easy, tedious and not challenging. You think you are just being a good team player, keeping working on it despite the results not looking good. Should you talk with your manager? Absolutely. Maybe she feels that you took the wrong approach, or she thought the project could have finished sooner, or if she is willing to reassign you to some other project that can benefit both you and the team. Being silent is not the right way to handle a bad situation. Both you and the manager are responsible for the business results. If things do not look right, raise questions and take action.

Working with your manager effectively is a key leadership skill

Similar to building any relationship, it takes time for you and your manager to know each other, building the relationship through working together in actual projects/tasks, and handling various challenges. Have an open mind, be patient, and give both sides an opportunity to get to a good rhythm.

As you grow your career, you probably will realize the trust and professional network become more and more important. The ability to work with your manager well is a key leadership skill. It will gain both your manager’s trust and help you expand your professional network, as her network is probably larger than yours. And the world is small, even if she is no longer your manager, it is likely that your paths will cross somehow in future. So it will be beneficial to keep her on your side.

#leadership #management