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Enhance your status and influence in the office by "managing up"

Sept. 14, 2021
There's no doubt it's tough to ask your boss what you can do better. But that's how you improve and learn to "manage up." The bold move will pay off.

In the dental office setting, the two working relationships that can often make or break job satisfaction for a dental hygienist are with the doctor or the office manager. A strained relationship with one or both can make for long, stressful days. Conversely, when the relationships are healthy, being a dental hygienist can seem fulfilling and rewarding.

In business, a best practice for creating and sustaining good working relationships between managers and employees is “managing up.” Harvard Business Review defines managing up as “being the most effective employee you can be, creating value for your boss and company.”1 Whether your boss is incredibly fantastic or has multiple shortcomings, managing up can increase job satisfaction and make your work life easier.  

Managing up is not about brownnosing or playing office politics. Rather, managing up will work only if your efforts at establishing a good, productive, working relationship are perceived as genuine. Managing up is a two-way street. People who are skilled at managing up not only help make their bosses’ jobs easier, but they find it enhances their personal power and makes it easier to get all the resources they need to do their job well.

Here are three tips for mastering the art of managing up.

Know what makes your boss tick

The adage that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care could not be truer than when it comes to managing up. It’s easy to make assumptions about doctors and office managers, such as they only care about production or the bottom line and not about the patients. While it’s probable that as a business owner the doctor does need to care about production and the bottom line, there is likely more to the story than money.

A great way to find out what they really care about is to request a regular monthly meeting. In business, we call these one-on-ones. While an hour is often the standard, in a dental practice 30 minutes is more practical. Start with a simple request, such as, “I’d like to meet with you regularly so I can be the best asset possible to the office.” Since you’re making the request, be accommodating regarding time, and try to refrain from cancelling or rescheduling. You can make an agenda or not. Sometimes, allowing things to flow organically can provide the most insight. It’s really about the quality of your time together and how it helps your relationship thrive.

Anticipate needs

One-on-ones and your daily interactions will help you determine what you need to do to make life easier for your boss. High-functioning teams can often anticipate each other’s needs before they’re even verbalized. In the dental practice, one excellent way to anticipate need is with a thorough patient assessment and documentation. There is a growing misconception that this is not in the dental hygiene scope of practice. Assessment is the first standard in Standards for Clinical Dental Hygiene Practice.2 Assessment includes a health history, clinical assessment, and risk assessment. Patients benefit, and treatment acceptance is enhanced when the messages delivered by the hygienist and doctor align. Another misconception about adopting this type of working relationship is that the dental hygienist is not responsible for sales. Doing a thorough assessment and communicating findings so that the patient can make an informed decision about care and attain optimal oral health is part of the dental hygienist’s professional responsibilities.

Focus on solutions, not problems

It’s often easier to see the external problems rather than the ones under your own purview, such as what the front desk or assistants should do differently. Conversely, it’s sometimes tough emotionally to look at your own area and do an honest assessment. In managing up, you need to start with your own self-improvement. A tough but essential question for your doctor during a one-on-one is, “What area of my department would you like to see improve?” Tough as it may be to ask, the benefit is that it positions you to be a solution-finder rather than a problem-seeker. Once you ask and receive feedback, ask if you can add to the list. This allows you to get your issues out in the open and find a solution. There will always be problems. If you can help solve those problems, it can give you enormous credibility and influence with your boss.

Invest in your workplace happiness by developing the skills for managing up. It does require some time and patience. However, it also provides you with a path forward versus spinning the hamster wheel. Moreover, even if you don’t achieve the outcomes you want with your current situation, you will have enhanced skills for your next work opportunity.

Editor's note: This article appeared in the September 2021 print edition of RDH.


1. Rousmaniere D. What everyone should know about managing up. Harvard Business Review. January 23, 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/01/what-everyone-should-know-about-managing-up

2. Standards for Clinical Dental Hygiene Practice. American Dental Hygiene Association. Adopted March 10, 2008. Revised June 2016. https://www.adha.org/resources-docs/2016-Revised-Standards-for-Clinical-Dental-Hygiene-Practice.pdf

Carol Jahn, MS, RDH, is the director of professional relations and education for Water Pik, Inc. She may be reached at [email protected].