Your Unusual Silence on Managing Up

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?! 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

    • Actually, rather than sring break, the weather has been so nice in Michigan that my guess is that it is Spring busting out that has all quiet on the “managing up” front.

      As an executive coach who frequently works with executives and managers who MUST manage up or be stagnated in a career – or see their boss take down a business unit through poor process – I beieve that most good leaders manage up, but very few speak about it publicly because it sounds arrogant. However, we all manage all of our relationships if we want to be successful in them , and we have an imporant relationship with our boss! Managing up well can make you the best number 2 in the company; many bosses quietly let you know they note and appreciate your efforts on their behalf; and, even if a boss does not notice at all, if you manage up, you will have a much better chance of developing your skills and achieving your goals in spite of a weak (or just human) boss.

      One example: Let’s say you have been in your job for 3-4 years, have gotten most systems improved to a high level, have good working realtionships with your direct reports and peers, but don’t see any new challenges on the horizon. You speak to your boss and he/she promises to look for oportunities for you. Bosses are busy too – nothing happens over the next six months. So what do you do? Get increasingly angry and frustrated by your boss’s lack of attention — or seek out those challenges yourself?

      My suggestion would be to look carefuly around the organization and see what needs to be done – develop a proposal for a project that will allow you to increase your skills and help your boss look good. Float the proposal to a peer or two — develop some support and then take it to your boss and sell it! Then get yourself organized and work on the implementation.. You get the experience and you and your boss share the credit.

      Example two: Your boss doesn’t handle meetings well. Ask your boss if you can take responsibility for running a part of an upcoming meeting where you have special knowledge or responsibility (as a developmental opportunity – yes, you have to be assertive here!) Develop a first rate template for an agenda, process, etc. Clear it with your boss (you’ll be teaching him/her) and then facilitate that part of the meeting in a way that helps the boss see the benefit of good meeting process. Maybe eventually take over some meeting prep for your boss?

      In any case, Dan, I am a believer in managing upward and in doing so, taking control of our own development and helping our bosses to be successful. Hope this moves the discussion – it’s a great topic.

      D Tanguay

      • As we yoosta say in da U.P., “Ya sure, you betcha!” Wouldn’t it be just lovely if all the toxic, inadequate, Peter Principled (promoted to their highest level of inefficiency) bosses would actually LET you take over some responsibility–even if your motives were as pure as the driven snow–without feeling threatened and as a result of their insecurity, punishing you for wanting to make him/her or the company look good to others?

        The fact is, some organizations, for their own reasons, WANT ineffective, toxic bosses–people who can get along in a toxic working environment, people who can close their eyes to graft and injustice and total lack of any sense of ethical responsibility.

        In such an organization, one can be the most gentle, tactful, helpful soul, one who aspires to ethical leadership in all things… and still get fired!

        It’s all well and good to hope that, as insiders, we can be a force for positive change in a sick system. One wonders if even outsiders can have a positive effect at all.

        Having observed all this for a long while in many places, and having heard many others describe their experiences, and having had the great misfortune of working for way too many rotten bosses in way too many toxic organizations, my current operating theory is that the only healthy thing one can do is walk away from it–whether customer or insider–and refuse to make one’s time and talents (as an insider) or money and time (as a customer) available to them.

        When enough people agree that compromising one’s value system just to get a paycheck (or a product or service if it’s a customer) is too high a price to pay, then these toxic organizations with their toxic owners and bosses, will wither away in the presence of progressive companies who actually act as if workers are a human RESOURCE, not a commodity to be pushed around and controlled and treated like a less-than-human robot or slave.

        Is my anger and resentment showing? Too much! And yet, I have reason to believe there are many others who have been fired for doing just the things that you suggest.

        Never underestimate how threatened an inadequate boss can feel when one of those who reports to them is highly competent. Be prepared to deal with personal attacks that come out of that defensiveness, though undeserved.

        Okay, I’ll admit that some bosses, though inadequate, are emotionally healthy and mature enough to actually want to get the job done well. That kind of boss is great at delegating. In my experience, they are far outnumbered by the insecure ones who are far more inclined to punish you in the belief that you’re “out to get them” or their job or “trying to show them up,” no matter how quietly your contribution is made.

        I WISH these toxic, inadequate bosses weren’t so prevelant. I WISH they didn’t find themselves so often in a toxic workplace where the words sound so ideal and the ordinary, day-to-day practice is so opposite of ideal.

        Wouldn’t you agree, as a management consultant, that if organizations really wished to change, they’d hire you more often, and actually put into practice what you recommend? Does that really happen, in your experience? Or are they simply acting as if / wanting to make it appear that they want positive change when actually, what they want is for everyone to toe the line a bit more closely, be a lot more productive, even when the organization won’t give workers credit for having a brain, even when they consider change threatening and damaging and contra-indicated, even when they won’t invest in the tools needed, or the expertise needed, to get the job done well and quickly?

        Enough of my ranting. You asked for a spirited exchange, Dan! Be careful what you ask for… 🙂

        • Holy smokes, ActivAdvocate!
          What a world you live in! I have worked for about 40 different companies – including a huge assortment of high school, college, and graduate school jobs, and my experience is so different than yours. In my experience the good ones are not “far outnumbered” by the insecure ones. It could be explained by the world outside you and me: I got lucky. Or it could be explained by the world inside each of us: I’m more positive, or NAIVE! You’re more skeptical or realistic? It is stunning how you and Mr/Ms Tanguay reflect such completely different stances of optimism/realism. You are right that we’re getting a spirited exchange.

          What do YOU make of this incredible contrast, ActiveAdvocate?

          Although my perception is so very different than yours about the degree of toxicity, I agree with your hardline position when it comes to true toxicity, i.e., when you bump up against an organization that is truly “toxic,” then GET OUT!

          I though that Kathi Elster made a HUGE point on the radio show last week when we talked about “managing up.” She said you have to “accept not approve” of a boss’ characteristic style, i.e., if they have control issues and micromanage, well, they do! There may be an element of toxicity about it, if they are truly in your workspace a lot. You can call it toxicity, neurosis, sickness, but must you stop there? Or can you instead connect with them, respecting that they’re going to NEED some high level of control? Can you figure out a way to get them what they need, but also get what you need? I suspect that if the worker doesn’t get past the judgment about the other, and the understandable defensiveness they feel, then they will never get to a positive place and be able to TRY things with the boss. And, if they do try, while feeling attacked and judgmental, they will almost surely communicate this, and the boss’ insecurity WILL be triggered, and it will fall flat as you say.

          Thanks for sharing what I would paraphrase Plato and call “contradictory impression that awakens a deeper level of reflection.”

          Mr/Ms Tanguay, I wonder what your thoughts are?

          – Dan

          • You have worked in educational settings. When I worked in educational settings (high school completion adults, vocational education, community college, and GED prep), I had no problems. When I worked in three different social services organizations, I had problems. Major problems. I don’t mind if a boss micromanages. I can handle that. It’s when they say in words, out loud, in front of everyone, “Thanks for all those placements! You were responsible for one-third of them this month. Our 11-member team really needed them to make our goal, and the rest of the team weren’t working with clients who have a criminal history. Good job!” and then the next month, they gig you because you’re working with too many clients, and it will have to stop. And the next month, you’re fired because as a taxpayer, you WANT to help as many felons as possible find employment, so you refuse to stop helping them, and that makes you insubordinate.

            Another example: the rule book says you HAVE to report it to a member of the confidentiality team when a client expresses suicidal thoughts, so after making sure the client wasn’t going to act on those thoughts, I did so, and then got fired because this client didn’t want THAT particular member of the team to know, and that particular member of the team broke confidentiality, so I had to be fired because it was all my fault. Somehow.

            Another example: the books ays you HAVE to find a member of the birth family to place a child with if one can be found who is healthy. So I looked around, did a complete study on one family, found one who’d take the child, and proposed it to the court. The foster care worker, who had never met the family, disagreed. They had been working with the judge for longer than I so they voted against the placement, and as a result, the judge told the 11-year-old child, who really wanted to live with his aunt and uncle, to “forget” that he ever had a birth family. !!!!!? Then the contract was pulled from our agency and I lost my job. Again.

            How about the boss who was thrilled to hire me, gave me a laptop and PDA and cell phone and instant messaging address and info on hotels and travel so I could go around the state and she could keep in touch with me no matter where I needed to be… and then gradually forbade me to go anywhere but the next room and told me that’s what the job description always said. By the way, she’s been diagnosed with chronic anxiety and depression and doesn’t choose to take any medication for it. So I told the CEO about it, having seen this same process with two previous employees–people who developed major health problems while working for the organization–and he wouldn’t do a thing about it. So when the grant ran out, I walked away. Since then two other people who did work there and didn’t really feel free to leave all the stress because they needed the health insurance… have died. Literally died.

            So yes, I know about truly toxic organizations.

            In my current position, my co-workers compliment me on how positive I am with clients, and compassionate, and helpful, and enthusiastic, and hopeful. Synonyms for naive? One co-worker thinks so, apparently. He can’t explain or understand how I can be three times more successful than he at helping ex-offenders find employment when he’s been working at it for years. I have reason to fear that his solution is to cut me out of the process altogether even though he SAYS he no longer wants to work with this population.

            So I can handle micromanagers if I know that’s what I’m dealing with, going in. What I have so far found impossible to handle is when the words go in one direction (our job is to increase the number of felons who find jobs) and the actions go another (you’re doing it, and you’d better stop, or it will cost you your job)!

            I welcome any insights you may have to offer on this topic. Clearly, all workplaces are not created equal. And yet, defensiveness no doubt abounds in all of them, as well as elsewhere.

      • I’ve read several comments and there are two observations I would make. First, managing up is supposed to be done with the intention that it’s not obvious to your boss or client. Secondly, managing up doesn’t work if it’s self-serving. Managing up is a strategy one undertakes to make progress that is in the best interest of one’s company or one’s client.

        I think managing up is essential in all organizations. It takes engagement with one’s boss or client, such that you really learn what makes that person tick and what their objectives are.

        It’s a matter of helping those who can’t necessarily help themselves. And even the best of supervisors need skilled reports who can take initiatives and do a lot of thinking.

        I consider myself skilled at managing up, but I also feel that I have reports who are skilled at managing up with me. That takes a certain amount of trust. And the only way you build trust is by showing that all of you are equally committed to the right outcome.

    • Here’s my explanation. Managing up IS hard. So hard that those of us who are trying to do it just can’t find the time to make blog comments. Until today.

    • I think the lack of response is not the subject but the failure of the ‘cyber sytem’. Last Monday when I received your weekly ‘Reading for Leading’ there wasn’t anything attached, just a blank page. Naturally I assumed that the computer techs on your end would discover this glich, fix and resend. I hadn’t thought anymore about it until this morning when I read your comments about no response to last weeks message. Maybe no one received it!
      It sounds like an interesting subject. One that I would be most interested in reading about as I am sure most your readers would. A few would probably even respond giving you the desired feed back that you are looking for.

      • hmmmm. hadn’t heard of this. thanks for sharing the feedback, anonymous. btw, you can read the column at Just scroll down a little from this week’s RFL.

    • I loved the columm. I thought it was funny and very helpful. I gave it to 3 people who work for me and they actually read it. Because it was funny!

      I want my employees to be honest with me and set boundaries clearly and honestly.

      Thanks for getting the converesation going.

      Avalon International Breads

    • Hi. Yes, this is very risky. I am a supervisor and my experience has been that our managers/directors don’t really want to hear much unless it’s a buy in or approval for their policies/procedures. It may be part of their personal insecurity/fear or a control issue. It’s hard to hear criticism. Personally, I enjoy hearing constructive criticism from the staff I supervise. It keeps me in touch with my team. I have worked in the same agency for more than 20 years and I can count on 1 hand the # of Directors that I believe have integrity and would be open to ‘managing up’. This is not to say that I haven’t tried – I have – but I would bet my name is in the group marked ‘problem employees’.

      • anonymous,
        thanks for sharing your comment. what a great conversation you could start among your peer managers! you could simply ask “do you think that we are creating a culture where our ‘subordinates’ feel empowered to manage up?” might make for a great conversation.
        if it doesn’t sound too arrogant of me, I’d suggest you share the RFL I wrote and the Heath article that can be found at and see if maybe it generates some healthy discussion!

    • Dan,

      I enjoy your weekly reading for leading column. I would have responded last week however, the steelhead were biting and I took some much needed r&r.


  • Hey Dan…

    Didn’t comment because I’ve been REALLY busy the last few weeks but couldn’t resist today.

    Managing up IS scary but it works. I’ve had more than enough occasions to try it in 40 years of work and while it will sometimes leads to confrontation… IF we lead with our best selves, as you say, it can be worthwhile.

    Frankly I’ve had my staff offer opionions that I may have not thought much of at first glance… only to find myself thinking them over a day or two later… and agreeing with their point of view.

    Hope you listeners/readers understand the power of a suggestion or an observation on someone else… OVER TIME!

    Enough for now… keep it up!


    • Hi Dan,

      Like Keith, I really felt I needed to respond, but being so busy, I haven’t had a lot of time, and especially with all the work I have for my PhD program.

      Anyway, I have used managing up, and it works for some, but for some leaders, they are so insecure in their own leadership and abilities, any suggestion is viewed as a threat, and their response is to clamp down, micromanage and create an even more onerous atmosphere of fear and control.

      It is like the abused spouse syndrome, where the employees feel so beaten down and powerless, that they don’t even want to try. Like the Peace and Pay legions of the “walking dead”, Dr. Quinn wrote about.

      Now I am saying that this is not in the majority of organizations, but the effect of “petty tyranny” is a real phenomenon that needs to be addressed as part of the strategy. If your boss is a bully, but is loved by his or her superiors, then any complaints by the employees of the bully are viewed as the whining of the disgruntled. The bully in some cases just walks the fine line between harassment and “proper management actions” so that any grievant complaint is dismissed as unsubstantiated and ” the mental beatings” continue.

      What needs to change , in my view is the climate and culture of fear. That has to begin with the senior organizational leadership who model and emulate positive leadership behavior that motivates and encourages employees and promotes organizational excellence. At the same time, the senior leadership needs to communicate to leaders at all levels that a climate and culture of fear and intimidation is unacceptable and that all leaders are going to be held accountable for establishing and maintaining an organizational climate and culture free of fear and intimidation.

      Basically Dan, I feel that people shouldn’t have to come to work and base how they operate and interact with their boss based on the type of day the boss is having. However, the senior leadership can, along with the employees be part of the process of managing up. This is where tools like the Mi 360 program are so useful.

      Thanks for your Reading for Leading and contributions to practice and the body of knowledge.



      • Terry,

        Thanks for your comments. Would that all managers had Keith Cooley’s openness to learning and information!

        I think you make a great point that it starts at the top. Would that all CEOs and Executive Directors and Department Heads who have the incredible opportunity to shape cultures could read this series of blog entries. I don’t think many realize how “creating culture” maybe the most important thing they do. And I don’t think they realize how corrosive toxic managers can be. You can’t possibly read these readers’ comments and not think; Geez what a shame that people are so negatively affected, and can you imagine the lost productivity, great ideas, energy, collaboration, etc., that result from these mindsets of persecution – the battered wife as you put it.
        Thanks for weighing in!.

  • Every non-profit executive has to play the delicate dance of “leading up” or “managing up”. (As do many for-profit) As executive directors we not only lead an agency toward its goals we also help lead the board directors to achieve those goals. It is really about Humility, and for those that do it well, they can be described as level 5 leaders according to Jim Collins in “Good to Great”. The ability to lead up is the difference between good leadership and great leadership of an organization.

    • The article helped to articulate the way I am learning to view things.

      You can’t give in to discouragement, anger or arguing, even though reacting this way is natural and almost automatic. It makes things worse for everyone(I know this by experience).

      Persistant, positive (honest – not patronizing) feed back does work over time, no matter where or with whom. It takes disciplined practice and patience. I’m not good enough at it yet.

      Not a good idea (though sometimes very tempting) to really view people as monkeys to be manipulated. But the analogy did get my attention and made me think.

      As a Christian, it is my appointed purpose to lead down, laterally and even up with “His” best self. Hope I can get better at it. Don’t really have a choice if I’m sincere and serious about it.

      Thank you very much!

  • In the one situation where I felt the need to manage up, I got badly burned. Total failure. It was the first time that I realized there are some situations where it is reasonable to cut one’s loses and move on (other than in the stock market).

    • Pat,
      I wonder what else you learned in that situation?
      Might you have approached it differently? Or was it just hopeless?

      • I learned a lot about my own abilities as an employee and a team member. It really helped me re-focus what I expected of potential employers and managers. Although it was a ‘hopeless’ case, I don’t regret the learning opportunity. I think one of the reasons that it was my one-and-only situation where I felt the need to manage up is partly because I am looked for open environments where management-style is more of a partnership.

  • Dan, no question that the process of managing up is useful and beneficial. But the average staff person many time has no way of knowing how his/her suggestions will be taken, whether the more senior person is amenable to productive suggestions and if that manager is sufficiently self confident to see the benefit of the process.

    While it can be a productive exercise over my 50 years in the work force I have also seen a number of people let go for trying exaclty that, by managers who were not receptive to such an approach. Caution remains the key word here.

    Jerusalem, Israel

    • Sherwin,

      Caution is key! You have to learn to read signals, too. Soemtimes someone says they’re open to feedback, but in the sound of their voice you can tell they’re not altogether open. And then sometimes when we build up issues, and we start to share them, we gush forth with it, and . . . it’s just too much to take. A boss may withdraw, or push back a little, but may be seething inside. They’re not apt to say, “Thanks, Sherwin, but maybe you should stop. YOu’ve given me a lot to think about. In fact, I’m getting downright p-ssed off about this….” So, caution, and reading reading reading.

      Thanks for sharing – all the way from Jerusalem!


  • Hi Dan:

    Recall that last week was school break in much of the Lansing area….

    I didn’t find the Heath article that useful — fun, but not terribly useful. Remember that an
    animal trainer is in complete control of who interacts with the animals, but a boss has dozens
    of employees, so one employee’s ability to “train” is limited.

    I’ve found the old Gabarro and Kotter “Managing your boss” from Harvard Business Review a
    more useful article. Very broadly, their point is that the relationship with a boss is symbiotic
    and the goal is to figure out how your boss can help you and how you can help your boss.

    In my field (computer science) this is tremendously important, especially for mid-level management, where the employees are the ones with the technical skills and the manager is
    the one with logistical skills, and neither can do the other’s job (unlike the small business
    where the owner-boss knows how everything should be done).



  • Unfortunately I’ve had the pleasure, or displeasure perhaps, of working for those that get a little power under their belts and run with it. I tried my hand at managing up for the better part of a year before I realized my boss responds to: sucking up or shutting up. Much as I would hate to admit it, I tried the sucking up for a few months in my early months on the job and that didn’t get me far, either. So… I shut up. Rather, I voice my opinions when it matters, but I realize that Mr. Director has his own ideas about “how things are going to be,” and this is what I need to deal with until something better comes down the pike. It’s frustrating, but my piece of reality.

    • I have found that it is often the boss who defines what the “truth” is: whatever he/she says it is. In this case, it doesn’t matter what the truth really is, I just have to keep my mouth shut.

  • Dan,

    I think that most people and organizations spend a lot of time managing up. In nearly every job I have had, people in my work groups have collaborated (and in some cases conspired) on how to best get the boss to either do what we recommend, refrain from going off in a direction we disagree with, or just to not get too much in our business. This involves deciding what information to share (or not share), how to best present information or options for decision, and what decisions to bump up in the first place.

    While not all of this collaboration is helpful, I think that it is a fundamental part of organizational dynamics, and I wouldn’t underestimate the amount of teamwork that goes into managing the boss.

    For example, our office currently has one boss who has a hard time being responsive to the all of the requests of his team for his time, decisions, input, etc. The team (both individually and collectively) is constantly trying to figure out how to get his attention, and help him to organize his day in a way that he has time to do those things that the rest of them need to fully function. Often times emails seems to go into a black hole and never come out. They don’t have an ideal solution yet, but through trial and error, and meetings with the boss (who agrees that he isn’t getting to the things he needs to and who wants us to help him find a way to fix this), the situation has marginally improved. What we have done is empower his exec asst to keep a daily list of decisions needed or issues that he needs to address, and then she puts time on her schedule to go over the list each day. This seems to give him a chance to get a number of his staff’s priorities done quicker than if he waited to get to them in due course.

    Take care,

    • John,
      Thanks for offering this perspective and example.
      It’s fascinating how the world divides between those execs (including the one you describe) who are open to being managed and those who are hostile to it.
      Of course, if we had a room of all of them and asked: “Who is open to feedback and to being managed by their subordinates?” we’d surely expect EVERY hand to go up right? Sure helps when the manager at least is open to it in reality!

  • Dan,

    As the President of a small business, I wish my staff would manage up more often. I realize that I do not have all of the answers and would welcome the opportunities to hear their points of view on business issues our company faces.

    I think as leaders, we are faced with the employee being intimidated by our titles. As the leader, I am constantly trying to get them share their opinions so that the organization as a whole can be better.

    Todd Palmer
    Diversified Industrial Staffing, Troy, MI

  • Whether managing up, down or sideways it seems we often hold unrealistic expectations of others that we couldn’t live up to ourselves. We all have strengths, and weaknesses, and after 10, 20, 30 or more years of professional experience we aren’t likely to make major changes in ourselves, nor should we expect it in those we work for.

    Part of the delicate balance, is to approach the concern in a tone of mutual acceptance. You don’t expect your boss/board member to make major changes but rather want to raise an issue that inhibits your and their effectiveness in working together. Too often we fall into the trap that “they are the problem, and the reason I can’t (fill in the blank)”. That, in and of itself, is the problem. You can respectfully agree to disagree if necessary, or maybe create awareness where it doesn’t exist today. It is the communication, not the behavior, that is often the biggest inhibitor.

    I don’t profess to have the answers to this, but do find approaching most management issues through this lens helps improve teamwork. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and need to find roles that play to our strengths, not emphasize our weaknesses. The same is true for your boss. What is it that they are exceptionally good at. If you honestly can’t see their strengths… you are likely the problem not them.

  • Immediately I thought of Warren Bennis’ book, Why Leaders Can’t Lead. One of the main reasons leaders, according to Bennis, get into trouble is because they surround themselves with people who tell what they determine the leader wants to hear, rather than what the leader needs to know. For sure there is risk in offering our ideas to those who supervise us. I think Howard Gardner was right when he said some people have a finely honed interpersonal intelligence, and others are lacking in this regard. I would guess that many variables come into play – 1)how your relationship with your leader(s) starts off – that is, can you be authentic at the get-go?, 2) the general integrity of the leader – is their interest truly tuned to the success of the organization or is it tuned to their personal success? 3) humor – does everyone in these interactions have a chance to laugh at themselves from time to time, 4) adult-to-adult rather than parent-child relationships, 5) accessibility – does the organization afford opportunities for authentic interaction, and 6) culture – does the leader seek out and request input from his/her employees. Just a few thoughts from sunny Georgia, M

    P.S. On the topic of leader integrity: When we see the ongoing reports of the pay differentials (executives making 400 times more than an employee), it is difficult to actually believe that these leaders have an interest in hearing from the folks “below.” Recently in a National Issues Forum on the topic of “Making Ends Meet: How to Help Working Americans,” one of the participants said that Universities, Athletic Organizations, and other businesses get rated according to executive pay. Therein lies the rub. We really have over-reached the point at which everyday folks, general citizens, the public, the workers (whatever we are called) must rise up and do what civil resisters can do.

    • Your post reminds me of a young man I once knew. He came across as quite argumentative and adversarial. No matter what opinion I offered, he took the opposite position. Because I’d far rather get along with people than argue, I asked him why he was so oppositional, commenting, “I just want to be your friend!”

      His response was wise for one so young: “Well, I don’t want to be your friend! I already have a lot of friends! I don’t need any more friends. All friends will ever do is tell you what you want to hear. What I need is one good enemy! Will you be my enemy?”

      We had a great relationship after that, and when the semester ended, he was affectionately calling me his “best enemy.” I was honored to play that role.

  • “Managing up” is a tough, tough process to work through. Just ask Michael DeVos (no relation to Dick or that DeVos family). A story ran in last week’s Crain’s Detroit Business. He was hired in 2005 to run the state’s housing authority. When he was hired, he was told to lead, to turn things upside down by the Governor and other bosses on how low-income housing contracts were awarded. Recently, he resigned. “He just gave up at the end,” the article quoted on contractor. Why? Because he tried to lead, he tried to live up to what was established in his job description, and he tried to manage up and let the governor and others understand that changing such a entranced system would be difficult. I’ve never met Mr. DeVos or worked in state government but from reading the article (and this comes from someone who has voted both for and against our Governor in elections because I consider myself non-paritisan), I feel that Mr. DeVos found himself in a situation very similar to what is often written about here or responded to.

    He did what he thought his managers wanted him to do even though it was controversial. They didn’t have the stomach for it. They caved and backed down to special interests that have built up over the years. He tried to lead. His leaders let him down. The status quo runs on. It’s a lesson for what happens when you have a stronger leader further down the food chain they you do at the top.

  • Hey Dan,

    As David and Craig suggested above, last week was spring break for many kids, and I took the entire week off with mine (even my e-mail!). I didn’t catch either your column or radio show last week. Regarding your topic, I try to apply the Golden Rule to managing up. I’ve been a people manager myself, and although I’ve been told that I was good in that role, I know that I wasn’t perfect. So if I have a suggestion for my manager (or manager’s manager’s manager), I try to talk to them as I would want someone to approach me if I had an “opportunity for improvement.” I would not, however, ignore a manager’s “opportunity for improvement” (aka “bad behavior”). Based on actual experience, it’s entirely possible that a person is unaware that they’re doing something that’s sub-optimal, or of the impact of the behavior on the rest of the organization.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Tony E.

  • As a woman, and an assistant to an executive, most of my “managing up” is done quietly, so that no one except the closest office staff would think that the “boss” was taking orders from an underling. Gently repeating a suggestion or firmly giving an opinion works depending on the circumstances, but always these are given in deference and with a promise not to bring it up unless he wants me to. With each manager I’ve worked with, the key has been to carefully weigh the importance of the communication against the risk and to time everything just right. Always act in a way that shows you act in his (or her) best interest and you’re goal is to make him look good in the end. If you know he won’t listen to you on a subject, have someone else he trusts present it to him. Of course, silence is golden at times.

  • I am in the Health Care industry and have had 5 bosses in 5 different systems in 5 different states in my career that all encouraged open communication and managing up. Perhaps it is the constant introspection of health care always seeking to do better; but all 5 of those bosses have asked for candid including occassionally critical feedback from me. Three used it as fodder to consider. One was a waste of time and one used it as an opportunity to re-educate me that I was always wrong. Needless to say the latter two stopped receiving my insights. However, In all five situations there was no retaliation or punishment. I don’t know if my experience is typical but from my perspective at least in the Health Care industry it appears to be.

  • Hello Dan,

    Perhaps there’s a better word to use than the word “managing” (as in managing-up)? If WE are being “managed” in a way that is disrespectful, intolerant, impatient, etc., then our framework of what “managing” is and how it works is skewed in the direction of the dysfunctional. Subsequently WE, as both managers and non-managers, are thus hard-pressed to witness what effective managing truly looks like. It (managing-up) may also carry with it the heaviness of “extra-responsibility”, along with the anxiety of having to “change” someone of whom we doubt will do so.

    If the word “serve” may be so dangerously :-)substituted in (as in “serving-up”), the “how-to’s” might(?) be more accepted and do-able.

    Most of us can probably exert a bit more empathy, honesty, forgiveness and compassion in the workplace…these “servant” terms take nothing more than a willingness in order to execute. And they do not require anyone to empower us to use them. Also, their application could have as much, if not more, of an impact on “changing our boss” than some of the more mechanical aspects of management (directing, delegating, rewarding, punishing, penalizing, etc.) that we might be getting a steady dose of in ways that turn us off.

    “Serving” in any direction (up the chain, down the chain, the link next to you) is for ALL in the organization who wish to be better workers and better people. I’m not so sure if the word “managing” enjoys such a positive reference???

    Sorry if this sounded preachy with a lack of personal touches. Just my thoughts…

    Finally, your willingness to dialogue with all of us (along with those who disagree) is quite “Servant-Minded!” Thanks!

    Jerry Nehr

    • Jerry,

      Thanks for the paradigm-shifting notion. If you can truly cultivate this type of spirit of service you become quite powerful. Your ego is out of the way, and that takes much of the threat out of the equation.

      It reminds me of some of the scenes from Gandhi’s life, where he so fervently believed in what he was doing, and yet he was so without judgment toward the British occupiers. He really felt like he was doing what was in their deepest and best interest, and of course he really operated without any fear. It’s a wondrous yet so-high bar.


  • As the many wise comments on this newsletter reflect, I believe that managing up is a skill that most people develop over time. It is also something that we can help each other with. Those who have more experience with different kinds of bosses are able to assess the authority figure’s capabilility in terms of receiving feedback. Then, there is often a person who is particularly gifted in communication who can help you devise a script or plan for communicating what you want from the boss.

    What is important, I believe, is not to sit back in bitterness and resentment — because those attitudes are poisonous to oneself. My best managing up moments have come from a point of definition — I’ve been able to define what I’d like from the boss, I’ve documented it (put it in writing) and I’ve calmly presented it to the person who holds the reigns.

    • Katherine,

      You are so right! If you do not let your Boss know what you want, expect or need to be effective you have no one to blame but yourself. Communication is a two way street. Many people just expect their boss to read their mind and automatically know what they are thinking. Bosses have enough on their plate and are trying to strategize the big picture. They assume that their subordinates have everything under control unless and until they hear from them. It is the employees responsibility to let their leader or leaders know what they need to be effective. When you keep your boss in the ‘LOOP’ you can manage up much more effectively. This is no different from the boss that just assumes the employees know what he wants without informing them. He can get upset but has no one to blame but himself if he does not keep his people informed of his expectations.


    • Katherine,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. Isn’t it interesting how INFREQUENTLY we write about what you point us toward: don’t feel like you have to be the Lone Ranger. Consult colleagues. Check your observations by seeing what others observe and believe. See whether someone else on the team might be better at intervening with the manager.

      Great thoughts on the power of teams and of collaboration!



  • Dan,

    There is a great book on this subject called ‘Managing Up’ by Rosanne Badowski, the Executive Assistant for Jack Welch, former CEO for GE. It has been a while since I have read it but it is very engaging and holds many nuggets of truth and practical ideas on the subject of Managing Up. One of the things that impacted me right off the bat in this book was the forward by Jack Welch. He paints a pretty good picture of the kind of employee and person Rosanne was. She was able to keep everything she knew as his assistant under wraps and did not leak information. When your boss trusts and respects you it is a lot easier to manage up. I am sure many people without this confidentiality trait would find managing up frustrating.

    On another note I think possibly the reason for the light response on this subject might not only be the subject but the timing. This is the crunch time of Tax season and many people are preoccupied with Taxes and related activities. I have found in my consulting work that people are quite un-engaging right now. Also many parts of the country have been dealing with extreme weather situations that preclude their regular activities. Finally but probably not the last reason that could cause a light response is the Spring Fever in many parts of our country as well as Spring Break etc. Transitions like this can always cause a lull in activity.

    Keep up the good work,

    David Thomure

    • David,

      Thanks. I only want to repeat your line. It’s so critical:

      “When your boss trusts and respects you it is a lot easier to manage up.”

      A great executive assistant knows their boss’ insecurities and foibles, and the boss knows the EA is trustworthy. When we – truth be told – hate or despise our bosses, and that is the underlying truth, why would they EVER listen to us receptively?! Great insight in the reciprocity of the relationship. Both sides have a big role. If you want to be listened to, generate trust!!!!!


  • While I work to “manage up” on a regular basis…offering solutions or ideas for better effectiveness which the boss can take credit for, it’s hard to manage the boss’s management style. I often get your emails and would love to anonymously forward them in hopes that they will be understood and implemented, but that’s just not possible.

  • I also believe tht managing up is a risky thing in some situations. However, the alternatives are not what I want to live with if I were to chose not perform the managing up process. There could be frustrations if a particular episode of managing up fails but as Thomas Edison is frequently attributed to have said, ” I now know a thousand ways not to build a light bulb.” Hopefully we don’t have a thousand failures in managing up but we need to keep trying if improvement is the ultimate goal.

    • Fascinating conversation on managing up. I’ve been fortunate to have chosen MOST of my “ups” since early in the career. I select those open to coaching etc so I think I’ve shifted the dynamic.

      What I find helpful when people are managing me is to determine how they are filling in gaps for my weaknesses (which I readily share). No shame in my game!! That is how I get better.

      What strikes me in the conversations today is how difficult managing up is. Particularly if you don’t have a sense for the person you report to. I do agree that an insecure manager can reak havoc on a career if they are threatened.

      What I take from all of this is to signal to my teams that I’m open.

  • Dan,
    My situation for “managing up” is a llittle different because I am a volunteer running a large project for a non-profit. I had the same role last year and once the event was over, I spoke to my boss’s boss with very explicit comments and complaints but also suggestions of how things could go better. Although it appreared that I was heard, this year there were no changes.
    I am very protective of the numerous volunteers who work on projects such as this one and it pains me to see the staff person belittle their contributions. If I witness it happening, I immediatly go to bat in their defense because if I step over the line, the staff person can just not ask me back in this leadership role. Although I am not paid, I still have a lot of investment in this position.
    As a volunteer, managing up is nearly impossible, but I still think very necessary. I am reluctant to comment because I do not have a paid position and if I point out the many deficiencies, I fear the response of “Why don’t you step up to fill in the gap?”
    However, I have made an appointment for tomorrow morning to once again address the deficiencies of this situation. I have gotten to the point that I will not take on a leadership role again without some change, but that is not an easy decision to make.
    Thanks for your suggestions.

      • So So. Although she heard what I had to say, I do not know that anything will change. She was respectful to my opinion despite the fact I am a volunteer. She made a statement that she will “not defend the person to me because she knew that I had been around enough to know what was going on.”
        I had a smaill piece of paper with my notes and when I left, she asked if she could keep my notes. That could be hopeful!
        Although it would have been easier to not let her know how I feel and use the excuse that next year I didn’t have childcare for Teddy, I am glad that I told her.
        Thanks for asking. Hope your family is good. I am sure your summer is busy, but any chance to pull together a weekend? I say this with knowing that we will be running all over this summer and not sure we could come up with a weekend. But, it is always worth trying.

        Thanks, Anita

  • Dan,
    Managing up clearly takes a certain degree of skill and courage. Most of us in the trenches are barely able to keep things moving in the correct direction. Memo to self: More practice required in the art of subtlety.

    Thanks for your RfL stuff!

  • Most managers have had little training in the “soft skills” of leadership and management. Employers often promote strong individual performers to supervisory roles with little instruction. But people who excel among the rank-and-file don’t automatically have the skills or knowledge to manage well….down, across or even up.

    New managers, who are forced to learn to be leaders through trial-and-error, find the transition difficult because they are ill-prepared for all the routine things that managers do. Much of training goes to help managers comply with workplace rules on issues like sexual harassment or teach them financial basics such as budgeting. Little training time is spent on “soft skills” such as coaching, leading, disciplining, giving feedback and resolving conflicts.

    Whatever the field, one of the toughest issues for new managers is supervising former peers. As a result, new managers struggle to strike the right tone with former peers and tend to confuse staffers with intermittent or conflicting feedback. The bottom line is up to 40% of newly promoted or recruited leaders fail to move up to the next level.

    Leaders often fail for a few common reasons: due to unclear or outsized expectations, a failure to build partnerships with key stakeholders, a failure to learn the company, industry or the job itself fast enough, a failure to determine the process for gaining commitments from direct reports and a failure to recognize and manage the impact of change on people.

    Executive onboarding coaching of the newly recruited or promoted manager can turnaround this high rate of failure.

  • I work for the Lansing School district and it would be wonderful if we could manage up. Unfortunately most teachers are afraid of the adminsitration and feel if they speak up or try to change things from the bottom up they will lose their jobs.

  • Dan, I was the first and only person, last week, that responded to the “managing up” issue. I’ve been in local government (Detroit) and have several friends in state government departments (Michigan), who have tried managing up and received nothing but grief for their efforts (up to demotions or re-assignments) or constructive discharge in the position to encourge them to quit. These were manangement and lower staffers. So is “managing up” worth it… No! All you end up with is social or financial pain from the efforts. Let’s be honest on this issue and quit blowing smoke up everyone’s rear end. As a “boomer” I’ve seen it all; and most of us just learn how to keep low and wait the SOBs out. As is said… “scared dogs do not/will not hunt! Most employees get the rolled up paper on the nose lesson very early and do not forget it. You just can’t imagine the pain in the ranks of too many organizations (public or private) that is out there! Look at ENRON. The woman who tried managing up got creamed; The woman who did the right thing in the mutual fund scandal got creamed! So, manage up at your own peril and potentially high career related cost(s).

    • G. Thomas,
      Thanks for your candor. Your perception is so troubling. We are working hard in the State of Michigan to generate a more enlightened leadership. Clearly, there’s work to be done.

  • Your column last week was fantastic. Like some of the others have mentioned, there is a fear of reprisal in going on record with this!

    I will share with you what happened in our office last week after sharing your article with some of my fellow managers.

    As we left a meeting where I apparently ‘managed up’our boss (I stayed in control and did not get frustrated), my colleague said, “You really Mulherned him.” So, your name has now become a verb in our office!

    While we are limited in how much we can do in ‘managing up’, your article offered a number of helpful hints that we have already put into practice.

    Thanks for the great insight (and humble admission that Frank needed to manage you as well).

    Michael Loughman

  • I think we all manage up, whether consciously or sub-consciously. As a manager of several people, I observe that they all attempt to use manipulation is some form or another, and if I take the time to consider this matter, I probably do the same. You have certainly given us food for thought with definite positive direction. Thank you.

  • Hey Dan,

    Looking at the number of responses this week vs. last week puts me in mind of Robert Redford’s line as the Sundance Kid: “Think ya’ used enough dynamite there, Butch?”

    Tony E.

  • I am a civil servant, and that I have tried to speak truth to power, to share my ideas for improving our work area and to ask for help in dealing with difficult situations and people on the job.

    I have been told I cannot learn from my supervisors if I am critical of them, seen my ideas taken by management and given no credit (this, after being told the ideas were unworkable) and dismissed as a whiner/troublemaker.

    This started after the first wave of retierments during the Engler years. As far as managing up goes, I remember the old restaurant workers lament: Fish stink from the head first.

    When the head gets it, maybe the rest of us will see opportunity to manage in whatever direction needs. For the time being, just let me do my job and avoid the stress of trying to help those who feel they can do no wrong, or I can do no right, without their wondrous assistance.

    • so sad…for you and for the lost productivity, collaboration, innovation, and FUN!
      I hope you might find some hope in some of the great ideas other readers have generated.

  • Managing up is all but impossible. Managers don’t want to admit they’re wrong (sign of weakness), think you’re trying to get them fired so you’ll get their job, or just don’t want to be questioned.

    I inteviewed for a facilities manager job. The bosses said they liked my ideas for changing the agency for the better so they hired me. A month later, they demoted me to office clerk citing “you just don’t fit into our group.” All because I implemented proactive management, letting staff know when there would be workmen in their area, etc.

    I was 56 when this happened. At that age, there is no recovery from a blow like that. State gov’t brands any demoted person as a troublemaker.

    So now I’m probably stuck in this position for 10 years, because I have to work that long before I can retire at this salary. I have tried to get another job, but can’t even get an interview. Probably jsut as well. I can’t afford to risk being fired and becoming unempolyed altogether, since my state ended Civil Service and now hires like the private sector. They can hire the young, pretty, and inexperienced without regard to mature, knowledgeable, experienced workers.

  • Amen, Amen, Amen…to: Comment by anon
    2008-04-14 11:18:09 and Comment by Anonymous
    2008-04-14 11:20:50!

  • Dan, What the Heath brothers say about training your boss, monkey or not, raises an old question that has always bothered me about animal training. Who really gets trained, the trainee or the trainer? Maybe both learn valuable lessons about interacting and achieving some goals, if not peace and prosperity… For many years, I read the tomes written on the subject of turning the management pyramid upside-down and about the true role of the manager as facilitator, coach, and collaborator. Anyone who seeks to gain power over another and to either “motivate” or “control” that other person is fooling himself or herself, and is really forging chains that restrict both parties rather than freeing either to get the job done and get on with the business of business. Better to concentrate on the lines of communication and negotiation that let each party win as much as possible. In my mind, power is simply your ability to get what you want from your environment, and all management efforts are joint ventures in which both parties seek to get what they want. Under that scenario, management is always a two-way interaction — part of a relationship based on agreed-upon rules. We all manage others up or down, as often as we are managed — not always successfully, of course — and not always skillfully. Unless confronted by a controller, we tend to “manage” up as often as we “manage” down. I cannot count the times friends and colleagues have made the comment about good bosses who seem to do their job effortlessly, almost as though they don’t have to “manage” their co-workers and subordinates. We all seem to have that image ingrained of managers as “controllers” (learned in school?). I still run into controllers once in a while, and they seem always unhappy about performance, and are politely, but assiduously avoided by their subordinates and co-workers, both because they tend to be very busy tending the chains they have forged and because they exude a sense of frustration that permeates all their relationships. Many I know deal with this situation by avoiding contact and never talking about that dysfunctional relationship. Perhaps that is one reason so few responded – out of the ingrained habit of not discussing an management situation that seems best ignored or kept quiet. It is good topic, well handled, and I have nothing but praise for RfL. Mick McKellar

    • Mick,
      Your points about the reciprocal relationship – as both a fact but also grounds for an elevated relationship – are spot on. Control – still taught too much in school – ain’t it!
      Thanks for your ideas and kind words.

  • The insights on these postings show some of the challenges. Managing upward is an art that we have to practice and relearn with each set of management. I find that my success [when I choose to manage upward] is affected chiefly by factors such as differences in personality / style, and openness / self-awareness on both sides of the interaction.

    Personality and style:
    – For one VP, I’m successful when I present only concise bottom-line comments.
    – Another exec wants the bottom line, then engages to really understand my perspective.
    – A third exec seems to prefer someone a direct challenge in front of others [I reserve that for a very important point].
    – If I’m respected, sometimes my comment is heard & accepted, where the same comment by a peer was dismissed.

    – Only the most secure managers create a climate where they welcome honest feedback. They ask for feedback, take time to hear & acknowledge the response, and follow-up as appropriate — actions that demonstrate that they value other opinions. What great actions to emulate.

    – When I feel myself reacting defensively, or when I’m feeling passionate about something, I usually need time to ‘process’ my feelings and the facts before I can address the matter fully. That takes time & prep to ensure that I’m able to interact professionally and objectively.


  • In most matters I typically take the position of risk-taker, planning to ask for forgiveness as opposed to permission. I’ve found over the years that I tend to understand the larger picture and discover how the system should work before most others. Last year, for example, I recognized an opportunity for the organization I currently serve that was aligned perfectly with our newly-adopted mission and business agenda. At that time, the organization was in the midst of an intense transformation – focused on process and internal, capacity building; and to make matters more challenging, we were grossly understaffed.

    In addition to my normal responsibilities, I began convening leadership across the region, securing resources and engaging in systemic planning related to the opportunity. Every couple of months, I would send a concise email to the CEO with an update on the initiative’s progress. Soon, our CEO began referencing the initiative in his public addresses and on the organization’s blog.

    Just last week in an organizational staff meeting, when I stood to thank an internal team which had made great inroads on the development of the initiative (a group of young people that I assembled, again, without permission), our CEO gave special acknowledgement to my work in identifying this opportunity and called my actions “true leadership.”

    This was, of course, a wonderful affirmation, but not a surprise. I truly believed in our need for the initiative- even when the leadership seemed to go radio-silent with feedback in the formative months. I knew the organization was focused on other aspects of development and that once we emerged, we would need a living example of our new persona. I had faith in my own ability to see the larger picture and make progress in areas where others were unprepared to focus.

    So, yes, I do believe strongly in managing up. It is sometimes the only way to make progress in a dramatically changing environment.

  • Dan: I did a lot of “managing up” at EDS when I was head of communications for 13 midwest states. EDS is a highly matrixed organization so I had to work with, convince, and lead many lines of business leaders in those 13 states who contributed to my budget. My budget did not come from my organization; rather it came from “contributions” from the business leaders in the lines of business in that geography, on the theory that my work benefited their bottom line. Most of these leaders were hard-headed numbers crunchers or techies. Few understood how good communications or community relations contributed to business growth and business success. I had to educate them and convince them. I did it by talking very specifically about the benefits — not the features — of what my team and I did. It took patience, talking their language and leveraging my allies, but eventually “managing up” paid off.

  • Hi Dan,
    You must have pushed the right button to get responses. Yes, it can be scary to manage up, and I think two of the most important variables are your own sense of self-worth, and your belief that others find what you do irreplaceable. For 25 years I worked with a boss who was, frankly, incompetent. I gently pushed him at every turn, and what needed to be done got done, and he was grateful to me because I was saving his —–job. I didn’t care who got the credit.
    Now I’m retired from gainful employment, working a number of volunteer jobs, and I don’t worry about managing up; they can’t hurt me financially if they don’t want my services, and my opinions still seem to have value, even if I’m not paid.

    Mary C.

    • 25 years of it – wow! This is a great example, Mary, of how managing MY ego is critical to managing my boss’ work. If I refuse – on principle, e.g., I should get credit – then I refuse. I feel bitter. Things don’t get better. (And as the great writer Milan Kundera might describe the great irony: the boss doesn’t even know you’ve screwed him! So, you get to stew in your resentment.) How much better to handle it as you did and have the satisfaction of moving the work along.
      (I couldn’t have done it that long 🙂 )

  • I think your comments about the need to manage up were spot on. I believe the silence which followed was driven by a perception…in times of economic uncertainty, no one wants to give their boss a reason to remember them negatively.

    Many of the three minute TV management consultants I’ve seen echo this sentiment about managing at work in a poor economy…”this is not the time to be perceived as the employee who complains and whines because it puts you at risk in the workplace….”

    Ultimately, managing up is about leadership, showing courage and taking risk. Leaders are change agents; they change their own behavior and coach others to do the same. They speak up and role model…even when it is risky. I have found most of my colleagues will agree with me in private however I am typically the lone ranger when speaking up. I also realize found that managers appreciate one on one feedback when it is done privately with the intent to help because many don’t get much feedback.

    It is important to remember when managing up…individual behaviorial change leads to the cultural change which can tranform an organization, a society or a nation.

    In reality, it is still very hard to put yourself at risk or to risk the livelihood of your family in difficult economic times to address a manager’s ineffective behavior.

    Yes….being a leader is hard.

  • Managing up is very hard. If you are very good at it, it appears invisible and still gets results. If you are good at it, it isn’t invisible, you can get reprimanded for any number of dubious and evil things and it isn’t worth it. If you are bad at it, you should leave it alone at work and practice harder elsewhere.

  • Dan,
    A while back, you suggested to me that I become active within the political process, in conjunction with my ‘questioning authority’…… so I have done such. I am a born Michigander, but live in the rural landscape of Amherst County, Virginia now. We are suffering from the mentality of over spend through add’l taxation by our county leaders, causing financial hardship to many property owners, in particular a small percentage whom ownership of land is in larger tracts, agricultural zoned. I created a groundswell of support for an organization that is trying to rein in the spending habits of the county. (One example, I did a FOIA request regarding the financial relationship between a contracted for services, lawyer in town, vs. a staff attorney hired on a fulltime basis as a county employee. Well, the results of my request were staggering….this lawyer was raking in well in excess of $500,000 per year. Avg, household income here is 37k.!! Once I made this public knowledge, he resigned his position, and a staff attorney hired for $114,000.

    Our website, that I created, is:

    I will be loading more data on to this new site, this evening, after I attend a budget meeting by the Board of Supervisors. There seems to be no one guarding the cookie jar here in our county, so I’ve decided to step up to the plate.
    Thanks for your continued inspiration.

  • The very idea of “managing up” seems to assume a level of self-confidence, assertiveness, and self-direction that a lot of people don’t have.

    For most people, the relationship with “the boss” is — when you strip everything else away — the umbilical cord that connects them to job security. And “job security” is often not just for the job holder, but for his or her family as well. It’s for the partner, and the kids, and maybe even for extended family members like Gramma, and Aunt Helen, and Cousin Eddie who lives with Gramma. For most people, there’s a TON hanging by that umbilical cord, and most people won’t even go NEAR the IDEA of taking ANY kind of risk with it.

    It’s easy for you to imagine it, Dan, and talk about it and imagine it for others. But consider: I’m guessing that if you lost your job, you wouldn’t ever worry that you were “near the edge” of losing your house, or having to sell any of your favorite toys (boat, motorcycle, woodshop equipment, etc.), or trade down to an older car with more mileage. Try to imagine facing the possibility of not even being able to HELP your kids pay for college. You can’t. (It’s harder for a rich man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle.) You have a pedigree of knowledge, education, experience, and contacts that very few people have. (That’s great! Congratulations! More power to you!) But you need to realize that because of your pedigree, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to accurately imagine what it would be like to have NO options if anything breaks your umbilical cord. In fact, I’m guessing that if you had a regular job and lost it somehow, if you had to, you could pick up the phone and within a few days of calling all the people you’ve worked with over the years, you could have a new gig lined up making at least half of what your current household budget and debts require. Even if you had to cut back to half of what you’re accustomed to, you’d still be more comfortable and secure than a lot of people have ever dared to imagine. And if you took a couple of months instead of a couple of days, you could probably equal or improve the situation you got separated from. A person with only a high school diploma doesn’t have those kinds of options. If they lose a job because of a falling out with their boss, they’re looking at $8 an hour instead of $15 or $17, and no chance of ever getting back to where they were. You need to realize that you’re not thinking realistically about what you’re suggesting people should do. You have an ethnocentric blind spot.

    Instead of asking how we can get more people to manage up, let’s go to a deeper systemic level and ask, “How can we change the organizational structure to reduce the level of fear and insecurity, increase people’s sense of security, and make it more likely they’ll feel more safe in volunteering their contributions? When you get to that level, you’ve got to push the boundaries and think outside the box. Like, “Why is it important for everyone to have a “boss?” Anyone who’s worked with the performance management system knows that it’s totally unrealistic to pretend that ANY one person sees and understands enough of what you do to pass final judgement on your work. Given what we know about human psychology and group dynamics, does it really make sense to insist on a structure in which every individual contributor’s job security rests in the judgment of ONE (usually flawed and DEFINITELY subjective!) individual? If 360 feedback makes sense, why not try 360 hiring, 360 supervision, 360 promotions, 360 discipline, 360 terminations, and yes, 360 leadership?”

    OK. Let’s come back to reality. What can a person who has a formal leadership role do to remedy this whole situation?
    1. Realize that if you have authority over any person’s job security, that person has probably censored whatever information they give you. (They may not even realize they’re doing it.) I believe everyone does this. Even middle and upper level managers. Do you seriously believe that Jennifer’s cabinet members are always completely candid?
    (I think it makes more sense to assume that they carefully monitor what they say and how they say it to preserve their job security, just like everyone else.) So if you’re serious about leading, you need to acknowledge the impediments to communication that are built into the boss/subordinate structure, and work really hard to overcome them. CONSTANTLY reassure people that it’s safe for them to be honest with you, and NEVER betray their trust by inflicting consequences, regardless of how much you dislike or disagree with what you hear.
    2. Realize that most people don’t like ambiguity. If they don’t have reliable information to work with, they’ll make stuff up. And then they’ll believe in it, and act on it, and spread it around as if it were totally true. (There’s a good reason everyone knows what rumor mill is!) So a good leader must communicate constantly, and not just about fluff. Talk to everyone in the organization about the stuff that’s most REAL in the work of the organization. An organizational newsletter that prints announcements about fundraisers and committee meetings is fine. But WHERE’S THE BEEF? Seems to me it would be so much better if the leadership team would send out an announcement to the whole organization, every time they make a major decision, or take a significant action. That’s NEWS! TELL it. Tell why they did it, and tell how it advanced the organization in its strategic plan, and how it fulfills the organizational mission. And if it doesn’t, explain why it was still a good decision. (If an executive decision or action can’t stand up to everyone looking at it, maybe some other decision would have been better!)
    3. Walk the talk with absolute integrity. The people over whom you have authority will be listening to every word. And whether or not you’re saying anything that’s REAL to them in the world of THEIR jobs, they’ll be watching every gesture, every facial expression, noticing every change in voice tone, measuring every pause — because their self-preservation antennae are always up, listening for the slightest clues that might help them maintain their job security.

    • Mark,

      Thanks for a fascinating and deeply thoughtful reponse. I think your counsel to managers is outstanding. I was at Google yesterday where they talked about how the CEO shares the exact same financials with employees as he does with the board. That sure helps build trust. My whole discussion with managers there was on how to appreciate some of the fears of authority that people have and to affirmatively and continually build trust and openness. So, I think you’re right on the money.

      I feel defensive about your suggestion that I am so totally out of touch with “real” people. I recognize that there are risks, that they are economic, and that the economics ties to deeper issues. I had a dad who raised 7 kids and was completely bound by the “golden” (a major exageration in his case) handcuffs, that kept him bound to a huge bureaucracy and often to less-than-bening bosses. Beyond my defensiveness, I agree with your assessment that managing up can be profoundly risky.

      I think your umbilical cord metaphor is fascinating, though, Mark. You could not have chosen a more profound image of helplessness. Is there not something demaning about telling “those poor regular folks,” that they are dangling from a thread of life; can’t breathe; can’t use their arms or voice; and that to speak up will lead to certain death? Rich people and managers can risk to act morally or courageously, but regular people shouldn’t? Is there a genuine reality in this manufacturing-stricken economy that someone could go from $15 to $8 an hour? Absolutely. Does that mean people should cower in fear in the corner? No, it means they better understand the risks – as well as the protections accorded them. But people have a certain freedom to act, as well as an intelligence to act. And as this long trail of messages suggest, there are great managers whom it’s easy to lead (see Doug’s comment below), there are “normal” managers with whom thoughtful action can lead to good results, and there are some very insecure managers, around whom people need to tread with great care. I can’t believe you think that all “regular people” should refrain from managing up with the appropriate level of caution, planning, and collaboration?

      Telling MANAGERS (including Mulhern and Granholm) that they should appreciate the genuine fear of regular people is totally on the money. You have made the point with passion, and it needed to be made (even for me, despite my admitted defensiveness). And, as I said, I agree wholeheartedly with your ideas on building a culture of openness and trust. But I don’t think we should “infantilize” people and tell them they are helpless and hopeless, dangling from an umbillical cord. Given the rest of your tone, I can’t imagine YOU believe that either!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to surface really important issues!


      • And thanks for YOUR thoughtful response, too!

        But I have to say, I’m curious: Where did you get the idea that I was suggesting any manager or leader should ever speak or act in a way that would amplify ANYone’s sense of helplessness? I re-read what I wrote, and I fail to see that suggestion anywhere in my comments. (And I’m CERTAIN it was not my intention.)

        Let me explain a little further. All I’m suggesting is that formal leaders should be realistic about where a lot of working class folks, and even middle managers, are coming from. There’s a very good reason that well-known middle eastern teacher, Jesus, referred to people as “sheep.” And if you get past the “gentle,caring” part of the image, you see that it wasn’t a very nice thing to say. It was also a pretty serious — but well-deserved — put-down! Sheep don’t exhibit anything like any of the seven habits. Instead of being proactive, they are almost completely reactive. They don’t begin with any end in mind, because they don’t ever try to accomplish anything. They don’t put first things first, because they don’t do anything to begin with. They don’t even swing at the pitches. Three strikes and they’re out on private victory, so they never come to the plate for public victory. In fact, they’re fundamentally fearful (a lot of people believe doubt is the opposite of faith, but it’s not; the opposite of faith is fear.) Sheep don’t normally exhibit any kind of leadership behaviours. If you watch a flock of sheep in a field, it seems to wander and flow aimlessly, more like a giant amoeba than a group of mammals with any kind of consciousness. What holds a flock together? Their equivalent of social-conformity. Safety is about staying close to the flock. It’s the outliers that taken down by the predators. Yes, Jesus was right-on when he referred to people as sheep, but he wasn’t paying us any compliment.

        Are ALL people sheep? Obviously not. In fact, I believe every human being is born with the full range of potential, from sheep, to Einstein or Edison or Ghandi or Mother Theresa. The whole question is, “Are you gonna wake up to your possibilites? Are you gonna do the work, develop the self-discipline, and fulfill the responsibilities, so that you can claim the freedom and power that are available and waiting for you?”

        I’ve been watching all this for a long time, and I believe that the vast majority of people only begin to really “wake up” to their potential. And all I was suggesting in my response to your column is this: It’s fine to suggest “managing your boss,” and I hope some people WILL take the risk. But don’t hold your breath while you’re hoping that strategy is going to make a difference in organizations. I don’t think many people (sheep) are going to respond to your suggestion. (After all, this whole exchange came about because you were surprised by how limited the response was to your suggestion.)

        Finally, just to hit the nail one more time, I TOTALLY did not mean to suggest that any leader should ever reinforce the “sheep” in anyone. I try my best to make every interaction an opportunity for whoever I’m dealing with to wake up a little more, recognize their responsibilites a little more clearly, see where they’re limiting themselves, and step up to a higher level of responsibility, freedom, accomplishment, and fulfillment. And I try always to see myself as a fellow seeker in that same endeavor. Please read my earlier comments again, and see if you can identify where in my words you heard something I wasn’t trying to say. If you find it, please let me know. If not, ask yourself: What did you hear, and where did that message come from?

        Mark Becker

        PS: I noticed you made a distinction between “managers” and “leaders.” It seems to me that it’s cruel and unusual punishment to keep insisting on an organizational structure that puts “managers” over people. Look up the word “manager” in your dictionary. Mine says, “To direct or control the use of; to exert control over; to make submissive to one’s authority, discipline, or persuasion;” If what we’re really after in our organizations is enthusiastic collaboration, cooperation, and empowerment, then maybe the whole concept of “managers” — at least of people — is part of our limitation. (Yeah, I’ve come back around to 360 hiring, 360 supervision, 360 promotion, etc.) I suggest we reserve the word “manager” to things and processes. Again, knowing what we know about pyschology and motivation, it ought to be obvious that trying to “manage” people is Dead on Arrival. “Leading” is the only approach that makes sense if you’re talking about groups or teams of people. For “lead,” my dictionary says, “To show the way by going in advance.” (I ALREADY feel better!)

  • Dear Dan,

    I believe that managing up takes courage, patience, grace and self examination. I have had the good fortune of having two of the most exceptional leaders with my current and most recent previous “bosses”. They accept feedback differently, and like me they have their teachable moments. Managing up take both positive and constructive feedback – this is the risky part. Like any relationship you weigh the risk with the potential reward – developing strenghts. The first question I begin with is “If this were me, how would I best accept the feedback?”, the second question is “Why do I need to give the feedback?”.

    I have also had the experience of working for a person who deemed me inapropriate for the work place stating I should be in my place, like his daughter “barefoot and pregnant”. This person I managed around! Any other approach would have been a pure waste of my energy and talent.

    The reward for kindness and generosity with others is that I am never disappointed in myself afterwards.


    • You know, Mark, what it comes down to is that one person’s reality can be different from another person’s reality. We have all had supervisors who fancied themselves leaders but where only bosses. They actually create an enviornment in which everyone watches each other to see who can step on whom in order to look better in the boss’s eyes. You learn that the boss squashes any honest feedback that he/she can’t stomach and what he/she say then becomes the new “truth.” So what real feedback we give is determined by how fragile our umbilical cord is.

  • Hi Dan — As the leader of a professional function in a corporation, I cannot tell you how important it is to me that my people “lead up” for me. Nearly every day, they plant some great idea in my ear, save me from some boneheaded move, or find some other way to bring out the best in me and in our group. I know that there are bosses out there who don’t welcome this — I have always thought they are crazy (and far less effective). The power of the team is so much greater when it is a collection and collaboration of multiple talented people. My advice to any of your readers who have hesitated to lead their bosses: Take a chance on it. Odds are that you will shine out as a result of your willingness to speak up for the benefit of the team.

    I am glad my team cares enough about our collective success to seize every opportunity to show me how to lead.


  • Managing up is an exhausting, frustrating and often fruitless exercise in state government. By the time someone gets it, they move on. What was the myth? Sisyphus? It is how we are those who are left to keep doing it everyday. Managing up is like being an elementary school teacher in a bad neighborhood. There are bright moments.

  • Dan,
    I think people do this all the time. In some ways it’s vital in order to accomplish anything. It can be risky, a little too much managing up and your job may be in question. Doing it well can make all the differnce for everyone.
    Kids do it all the time with parents, teachers and coaches, ect… Sometimes it feels like manipuation!

  • Having trust to manage up or down always seems to be the issue. The ability to create synergy by managing up is what is best for any organization. In the process you may find out more about a situation or program and have your mind changed from the discussions.

  • Managing up, is an uphill battle in most cases. Many people are resolved to let whoever is in charge make the decisions, and so they are what people above are calling the sheep. Managing up is a several step process. I have participated by commenting on many public issues. On average few of my experiences have been positive. The first battle is convincing an elected official that citizen comments and inquiries should be respected, that is to get the idea of managing up to be accepted within a company or government. Sometimes you can find a facilitator at a company, or a government, who will carry the ball, or open the doors. If you give up on the idea of getting credit for your ideas, you can accomplish a lot; however in the work place a superior taking your idea and then getting a bonus or advancement is hard to swallow, and all the more if several ideas were taken without giving the originator credit. In government it is not always hard to accept who gets credit if we make progress; however sometimes you know the person who got the credit, or re-elected is in reality a poor representative of the people. There can start a long story on how we chose our leaders, but for here, I will say that finding out whether a candidate is dedicated to better management, including the acceptance of managing up, is one important piece of knowledge we need to make a part of political campaigns. Given comments made by Dan in the article which starts this blog, for anyone with a furtive imagination; none of my comment here refers to Jennifer Granholm, who by and large I think does a wonderful job under trying circumstances. I do not think I would keep my grace as often as she does under the political circumstances of the last 6 years.

  • I have been managing up for most of my life. I discovered quite early that my primary job was NOT to do my job, (although I did and do continue to do my job(s). My primary job in any position was to figure out the boss’s immediate, and long term goals, get in the boat and row with them and help make them be successful, and therefore it was usually a cinch to keep them happy, and I was able to manage them and myself effectively. (This does not work very well with multiple bosses, find out who is Key, and their goals.)

    When I was self-employed, every time the phone rang, it was the boss (customer) calling! Again, I had to figure out what they wanted, (Believe it or not,they DON’T always tell you directly!)

    I have a feeling that sometimes when staff members get shot down trying to manage up, they didn’t do their homework fully beforehand. They might have asked for responsibility that was beyond what they were actually able to handle. I have one staff member that has wonderful suggestions, great ideas, and a bubbly, engaging attitude. The problem is her inability to meet deadlines, poor follow-thru and lack of stick-to-itiveness. She is good at her base, primary duties, but not new, special projects that require research, time and effort to pull together. On suggestion to employees is to give themselves a hard look through their bosses eyes, before they manage up.

  • I witnessed a toxic work environment in which the toxicity was employed by the employers. Along came an entry-level employee with a destructive narcissistic pattern who was fiercely ambitious. For the newcoming employee, “managing up” was de rigeur — a Machiavellian exercise in scheming, one-upmanship, scapegoating and discrediting, and most important: ego gratification. In this instance, “managing up” did not improve procedures or morale at the workplace. Toxicity increased, employees departed.

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