How to manage upwards

Managing up is not about blindsiding, ignoring or sidestepping your manager to seek higher Counsel. Nor is it about sucking up, demanding attention, or doing the work of a poorly performing manager. By Kate Kearins.

I can’t recall having a boss I did not like. Sadly, that’s not the case for everyone, with more than half the respondents in one large study reporting they had quit a job because of someone they perceived as a bad manager.

I’ve stuck around Auckland University of Technology for a good number of years through several different managers. I appreciate each has their own style, making for unique managerial relationships.  

Though still relatively nascent, a growing body of research focuses on the concept and practice of managing up – the process of understanding how your boss leads and communicates, and how you yourself work and communicate, in order to develop and cultivate a productive working relationship.

Traditionally, the relationship between managers and staff involves power and authority – both of which generally favour the manager.

Management has for decades been constructed and studied as a predominantly “downward” phenomenon. Within flatter organisations, attention often rests on how to manage across organisations and wider stakeholders – but not upward.

Indeed, managing up has not been something that has been explored, showcased or celebrated to any real degree in management studies or organisational development initiatives.

While these days you can find some good reads on management and leadership, you would still be lucky to find a book on managing upwards, downwards, and across.

HR Professor Candice Harris, who reports to me, gave me the idea for this column a year ago. She offered some sensible suggestions which resonate strongly with the research on managing up, and which I am delighted to share. To help determine if you are managing up effectively:
•    Know your manager, including what works with their communication style and management style.
•    Be driven to add value in a proactive and useful way.
•    Respect individual roles and deliverables.
•    Reflect on learning and rewards (or costs) from managing upwards.
•    Consider if you manage yourself well – “Is your own sandpit sorted?”
•    Examine how organisational configurations and cultures can support or create barriers for managing upwards.
•    Consider how organisational development efforts can support practices such as reverse mentoring (when a more junior employee mentors someone more senior than them).
•    Consider how managing upwards done well could positively impact job satisfaction, job enrichment, retention, and career development within your company.
•    Think about the role of technology in managing upwards – do you need some in-person time along with the Teams or Zoom calls? Do you respect ‘normal’ working hours unless it’s something urgent?

To eliminate any confusion, Candice also offers some wise words about what managing up isn’t:
“Managing up is not about blindsiding, ignoring or sidestepping your manager to seek higher counsel, sucking up, demanding attention, or doing the work of a poorly performing manager.”

I agree.

I don’t think most people need to do a sophisticated analysis of their manager’s communication and management style, but they do need to think about what works best to get the best work done.

Sometimes that means an honest conversation and assessment about where things have failed or broken down, and other times it can be useful for both managers and their colleagues to be open about their strengths, and the areas where they can usefully complement each other and fill in any gaps.

Like it or not, managers and employees are in a relationship with each other. Whether managing up or managing down, the human aspect of that relationship makes it an interesting and essential place for learning about oneself and others – hopefully to the betterment of interpersonal, interprofessional, organisational and societal goals. 

Kate Kearins is Professor of Management and Pro Vice Chancellor/Dean of the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology. Candice Harris has worked with her for several years.

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