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What Managers Mean by ‘Managing Up’

I remember the first time a manager asked me for advice on how to train one of their employees to “manage up”. This kind of question is my favourite part of working in HR. It’s like overhearing a fascinating snippet of conversation as you pass a dinner table at a restaurant and then trying to figure out the topic under discussion*.

What the heck does ‘managing up’ mean? I mean, I know what I think it means. But more importantly, what the heck does it mean to you, the manager on the other end of the phone? What unmet need or unarticulated frustration lies behind the request to HR to suggest how you can make someone on your team understand how to manage you, their manager? Let’s backtrack to explore the winding path that led to this moment, when you are asking me for a book** I can suggest for your employee to read on ‘managing up’.

What a delightful puzzle. Really, I mean that. There is no sarcasm here. To me, this is the good stuff; a mystery to unravel, a riddle to crack. This was not the last time I heard this question, and if you work in HR you’ve probably heard it too.

What is “Managing Up”?

There are a lot of definitions, and you’re welcome to yours. I think someone who is adept at managing up is aware of what is salient to their manager (based on their manager’s context in the org, current priorities and pressures, interests, and personal foibles) and uses that information to shape how they communicate and work with their manager for mutual benefit.

This includes really valuable things like understanding when and how to share bad news with your boss (and what they will even define as bad news), what their triggers are (e.g. lateness, a lack of prep for meetings), who they care to impress, and how to speak so they hear you when it really matters (like when you need to communicate that you’re overwhelmed).

It would be tempting to assume that others mean the same thing when they use the term ‘managing up’, including managers who ask HR how their employees can become better at it. In my experience, that assumption has proven to be a mistake.

So what do managers mean when they say they want their employees to be better at managing up? Well, each mystery is unique and I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun by trying to solve yours for you. However, there are a few things that I have found it might signal:

  • The manager has failed to recognize that the employee is simply very junior, and since no one explicitly teaches this stuff they simply don’t know what they don’t know (most obvious);
  • The employee lacks understanding of the org’s culture, specifically how decisions are made, what information is valued, whose complaints and opinions carry the most weight (this might be because they are new to the organization or because they lack exposure to people outside their immediate team);
  • The employee lacks understanding of the manager’s role, goals, strengths and weaknesses, and the relevant political dynamics in the org (note that this is clearly within the managers control to address);
  • The manager is (to some degree) dysfunctional, disorganized, inept, anxious, or incapable and is displacing the challenges that creates onto their direct reports;
  • The employee lacks exposure to (or interest in) the broader goals and business context of their team/department/organization (this can be caused by a lack of transparency in the org, a lack of clarity about broader goals in the team or org, a lack of communication or transparency on the part of the manager, or an employee’s personality or aptitude);
  • The employee knows the larger context and what is most salient to the manager and is engaging in ‘malicious compliance’ (following instructions to the letter rather than in the spirit they were intended, to destructive effect) because they are really pissed off at the organization or the manager, which may or may not be justified (the feeling, not the behaviour).

One way to try to solve the mystery of whether it is one of these things (which clearly would each result in different responses, none of which involve giving the employee a book) or something else, is to help the manager look beyond the relationship that exists between them and the employee one-to-one. If the employee is reasonably good at managing peer relationships and navigating information sharing with colleagues or their own direct reports (if they have them), that’s a good clue that they don’t lack the skills necessary to ‘manage up’. Which may lead you to conclude that its the manager who needs to recalibrate his or her expectations, or that its time to take a good look at how the manager or org might be contributing to the behaviour they’re seeing (or explore malicious compliance).

It’s also worth reminding managers that the opposite situation (someone who excels at managing up at the expense of other relationships) is a much worse problem to be on guard for as it can mask a bully, jerk, or tyrant. These are the kind of people who often get promoted in organizations to the chagrin of colleagues.

An interesting notion to make this whole ‘managing up’ thing much more explicit is the concept of a ‘user manual‘. I’ve never used this myself, but I can see the appeal.

What do you think? Do you have a different definition of managing up? What might your HR sleuthing skills tell you about a manager’s request to teach their employee to manage up?

*This is maybe the best opportunity I’ll get to share the most fascinating snippet of conversation I overheard during my many years of waiting tables. It happened as I walked up to a table of three 20-somethings eating brunch on a patio on King West. I arrived table-side just as the young man said “…and so I called it the party-hardvaark.” I’ll never know why that particular combination of words came to be spoken…

**I love books, but humbly suggest that ‘managing up’ isn’t something you can learn by reading a book someone foists on you

***Footnotes inspired by Michael Carty and his excellent writing

Read This Week

The 3 Things Employees Really Want: Career, Community, Cause – Lori Goler, Janelle Gale, Brynn Harrington, and Adam Grant, HBR

Interesting look at data from hundreds of thousands of survey responses at Facebook that suggests employees across geographies, generations, and professions want fairly consistent things from their work.

“To know what one really wants,” Maslow argued, “is a considerable psychological achievement.” Our data suggest that people are very clear on what they want at work — and they fundamentally want the same things. When it comes to an ideal job, most of us are looking for a career, a community, and a cause. These are important motivators whether you’re 20 or 60, working in engineering or sales, in Luleå or São Paulo or Singapore or Detroit. We’re all hoping to find a what, a who, and a why.”

The New Rules For Surviving a Career – Lauren Cain, Medium

I adore this, and urge you to read it. Cain writes of her decision, at 36, to walk away from a “good” job (secure, six figure, corporate) and the guide that she has formulated in the aftermath. There are SO MANY awesome, wise points in here.

“While walking away is never easy, it was the feeling of having to accept defeat that was crushing. I spent the requisite time languishing on the couch, but as the days passed, something else started to happen. I began to defrost. A thawing out of the machine I had tried to be to fit the mold, to the softness and tenderness that I actually was. As I passed the hours between the couch and endless kneading of dough for loaf after loaf of bread (the methodic motions soothed me), I was sorting through which parts were truthfully me, versus the dusting of assumptions and expectations the working world had placed on my shoulders. Layers of dead and useless beliefs started to shed. Beliefs that I never recalled accepting in the first place, but were laid down while I was looking the other way.”

Triggered – Avery Francis, DisruptHRTO
I’m so glad I got to see Avery give this talk live. She showed courage and poise while sharing her experience of sexual harassment in the workplace.


Photo by Jungwoo Hong on Unsplash

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