What’s With Leading Up?

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I originally published this column in 2008 and got almost 80 reader responses. Thought it worth sharing with some minor revisions…

Do you make anything of this? Last Monday I wrote about “managing up.” I got only 4 blog comments, three of which were random attacks on the Governor that were unrelated to my column. Typically 15-20 people weigh in. Then on my radio show this week the topic in the call-in hour was the same: how to manage up. And not a single call! I don’t think it’s accidental. I’ll tell you what I think, and I hope to hear what you think.

First, “managing up” can be a scary proposition. I imagine there were people who would have loved to call in and get some advice on handling a challenging boss, but those same people might have understandably been afraid to talk about it publicly. What if the boss heard?! I also suspect that people feel rather hopeless when it comes to this topic. “Geez,” I imagine them saying, “It’s hard enough to manage down, to manage your kids or your team, let alone to manage your boss or your parents!”
I’d love to hear whether you think this is true (you can blog with a pseudonym or anonymously). Do you aspire to managing up? Or do you think it’s too dangerous? Do you think you should try to manage up – i.e., is it the job of all us who wish to lead, to lead those who are the formal leaders? I suspect this could be a robust exchange, especially if we drop the gloves of abstraction and actually write honestly about how we approach leading up. Do you manage up? Why, or why not? What holds you back? And what works? I fervently invite you to contribute to this week’s blog and read what others have to say.
Here’s my take on it. I think managing up is risky. And I think there are genuine limits to how much you can get a manager to change his or her practices. But I think most of the time it’s worth the risk. If you lead with your best self, you will almost inevitably engage the formal leader(s) to share information, question assumptions, offer ideas, and otherwise act with ownership. I hope you might take a little ownership of this important conversation, and comment this week, as you
Lead with your best self,

First, “managing up” can be a scary proposition. I imagine there were people who would have loved to call in and get some advice on handling a challenging boss, but those same people might have understandably been afraid to talk about it publicly. What if the boss heard?!

Second, I suspect that people feel rather hopeless when it comes to this topic. “Geez,” I imagine them saying, “It’s hard enough to manage down, to manage your kids or your team, let alone to manage your boss or your parents!”

I’d love to hear whether you think this is true (you can blog with a pseudonym or anonymously). Do you aspire to managing up? Or do you think it’s too dangerous? Do you think you should try to manage up – i.e., is it the job of all us who wish to lead, to lead those who are the formal leaders? I suspect this could be a robust exchange, especially if we drop the gloves of abstraction and actually write honestly about how we approach leading up. Do you manage up? Why, or why not? What holds you back? And what works? I fervently invite you to contribute to this week’s blog and read what others have to say.

Here’s my take on it. I think managing up is risky. And I think there are genuine limits to how much you can get a manager to change his or her practices. But I think most of the time it’s worth the risk. If you lead with your best self, you will almost inevitably engage the formal leader(s) to share information, question assumptions, offer ideas, and otherwise act with ownership. I hope you might take a little ownership of this important conversation, and comment this week, as you

Lead with your best self!

12 responses to “What’s With Leading Up?

  1. Managing up one level, to one’s immediate direct report is more or less difficult depending on their leadership style. We might find that our leaders are more open than we think if we simply engage in the conversation.

    I think managing the one up from our direct supervisor is more of a challenge because the relationship isn’t as developed or they aren’t as accessible.

  2. Managing up is a nice concept, but organizational culture as well as a individual manager’s leadership skills determine whether doing so will be supported, discourage or worse yet punished/used. The unfortunate result of the great recession and the increased change in the power dynamic of the employed has resulted in the existence of true leadership cultures taking a few evolutionary steps backwards. You would think with social media, linkedin and the internet employers would be investing more in shifting their cultures, but the the opposite has happening. Last point, the word “managing” and its meaning either up or down is part of the problem, we need people in all organizations to be “Leading” up and down, not managing.

  3. Managing up is a way for a leader to know what makes you tick. It doesn’t have to be intimidating. If you look at it from the perspective of what you can control and what you can’t, then taking ownership of telling the boss when something she/he did added value to you or meant something to you, reinforces the kind of behavior you want from that boss. Simply stated, when was the last time you recognized you boss for something they did that you liked? What happens each time you do that? It builds the behavior that energizes you and the way you want to be lead. Then, ask yourself, are you speaking up when you know your boss is going to be blindsided? It’s a two way street. Again within your control. Ask yourself, if you start with these two simple principles, aren’t you moving in a positive, forward direction?

  4. Hi Dan,
    Trust all is well with you, Jen and the family. I found this piece by you particularly interesting because Raynona has been “managing up” for years! For the 1st 20 years of our marriage I thought I was in charge, and that she was my helpmate. I then came to realize, with a little help from our daughters Ayana and Goldie, that my wife had really been in charge all of the time, but that she had figured out how to make me think that I was in charge. That was almost 25 years ago and she’s still “managing up”. Only now I know it, but I still do as I’m told.
    Maybe the word that confuses some folks is “manage”. Regards.

  5. I think I aspire to manage up, however it can be a very dangerous area of leadership. You face the possibility of extreme consequences by a person or people that are usually in a direct position to enact some sort of recourse against you if your feedback is not given constructively. I’ve had times where I’ve had to manage up and it actually changed things for the better of a whole group of my peers, but it took a lot of courage to make that decision to speak up. As you taught me Dan, leading is not always easy, if fact it is usually a uncomfortable trait for most. I think it is a necessary risk that a minute amount of people are willing to take, similar to studies of the small number of folks willing to act in certain emergency or discriminatory predicaments that may occur around them. This topic coincides with a movie called the “Experimenter” about Yale professor Stanley Milgram’s study of how people psychologically respond to authority and circumstances that push them to be cruel. His studies showed that very few people were willing to manage up and challenge the directives they had been assigned. I believe managing up is a trait of a leader, but only a small portion of our society current exhibits this characteristic. The authoritative structures in our life imply a assumed prohibition of “managing up,” this is the norm that most people never divert from. It is the unwritten or spoken rule.

  6. Managing up really comes into focus when those above you are doing a pretty lousy job, but most in management (I hope) aren’t ruining EVERYTHING…or someone would notice. Unfortunately, these same people have bosses above them who are, consequently TWO bosses above YOU. There are times that gentle humor permeated into some suggestions can pave a little of the way to some solutions, but more often there seems to be no one seeming to care when we “little guys” are being ignored and trod upon no matter how much we try to lead. I even heard derisive laughter at a recent meeting where “site-based management” was ruled as totally absurd. I’ll keep trying but cannot be candid nor open because those “above” don’t see that as any of my business.

  7. I think this is rather fitting to the article that went viral a few days ago. A woman lost her job at Yelp because she spoke publicly about the hardship she was facing trying to afford rent and groceries. In this situation, she publicly expressed her concerns to the CEO, which is an ambitious gesture, but should she have gotten fired? Were here concerns not valid? I think living under the poverty line in one of the most technologically developed cities in the world (San Francisco) and working for a multi-million dollar company, warrants a drop of irreverence. Yet, these are the dangers people are facing when they are valiant enough to “manage up”.

    One of the most important qualities of companies is the ability to formulate collective intelligence and this includes sharing your reservations as well as your creative insight. We should not be scared of losing our job if we respectfully express our objections, yet this happens all too often.

    In my experience, the only time that managing up resulted in a bureaucratic issue was in the midst of an egotistical individual who thought their authority was being threatened. Maybe they should read an article about emotional intelligence? That might come in handy as a leader. However, I think we are hard-wired to follow authority and not question it. It is instilled in our brains during the most crucial periods of development to follow directions correctly, to color inside the lines, to not question the authority of our teachers or our elders. I think once we reformat this structure and learn to think for ourselves we will create a generation of leaders.

  8. Dan,

    As you well know, it has been some years since I had a formal manager because of my ongoing adventure with leukemia, my stem cell transplant, and the resulting graft versus host disease. My experience with my pre-illness managers notwithstanding, there have been situations since requiring the same or similar skills. These apply to the dedicated and hyper-focused medical professionals treating my illness and managing my care.

    I became something of a homegrown expert on my own condition as a result of: 1. A wonderful mass of reading materials and sources provided by my doctors and their staff, and 2. my own insatiable desire to research my conditions on the Internet. I started asking questions, often requiring some detailed medical explanations, and inevitably offering my own opinions on my own care. Initially, I think they rather appreciated my interest and “played along.” However, it soon became a sore point with nurses and doctors. They viewed my attempts at reaching up to help manage my own care as interference.

    The head of oncology was called in to have a talk with me, and asked me politely, but firmly to let the professionals manage my care. I backed off, temporarily, but I’ve found that with a little more tact than I used before, most medical professionals appreciate being challenged to explain why treatments and procedures are necessary. The hard part is maintaining sensitivity and tact when medicated to the eyebrows.

  9. Hi Dan,

    Wonderful article. I have trouble with my boss talking the whole time I’m meeting with her with little or no room for me to speak.

    Once when i said i had a topic to talk about and just when i was 15 seconds in to my topic she cut me off as she understood the topic and went on to talk 59 mins on that topic with no room for me to jump in between of my 1 hour meeting with her. Everytime I tried to sneak in and say something she interrupts and keeps talking.

    how can I manage up in this situation where she will hear me out and give me more room to speak?

    thanks

    1. Wow! This is nearly unbelievable. My concern would be that anyone who is so tone deaf, apparently so self centered in a very literal sense, would have a terrifically hard time hearing feedback. I imagine I would only take that on, if I knew there was some institutional support for it. How is it even possible to do your job with a boss who listens so little, so poorly?

  10. Like so many things, the answer to ‘should we manage up?’ is a definitive ‘it depends’. In my world it depends very much on the topic, how strongly you feel about something and the need to correct or (maybe better) guide the boss, and how tactful you have to be. This last is a question of the boss’s personality/security/comfort with you – I find that if I think something is important, some sort of conversation has to happen. Then it is a matter of judgment – sometimes, especially if I can see my way to a solution, I am quite blunt. Other times the managing up takes the form of questions and requests for help with a problem.

    best wishes, Dan.

  11. I believe that the ideas we have against managing up in organizations come from the misconception between leadership and authority. Whereas the role of the latter emphasizes a relationship that flows downwards, leading is not about engaging the ones below you, it’s about enganging everyone around you. Although it would be naive to think we can influence our bosses as easily as we can with the ones below us in the hierachy, I think it is our duty as leaders to try to help everyone reach their best self, at least within the organization.

    Nevertheless, manners matter. The attitude we adopt when giving feedback is possibly the critical factor on whether our message hits our target in a relationship among equals, and this is even more critical when the person receiving the feedback is in a position of authority. It is at this point when assertivity and empathy enter the game, as it is expected that every individual will best react to different approaches.

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