When to “Manage Up” Your Manager

manage up

For every strong manager, there’s one who is weak and ineffective. One who does not listen.  One who does not get along well with others. One who cares more about getting credit for ideas over how good those ideas are.

When managed by a weak manager, employees often find themselves intervening. They step in to organize the team or smooth over a tough situation.  To keep things productive, they turn to “managing up” their managers.

Employees who are psychologically disengaged are less productive and are more apt to seek new employment.  “From an employer standpoint; employee turnover, or churn, is really expensive to an organization. For example, economic turnover costs have been estimated as high as 213% of a year’s salary for a highly skilled job” (Boushey & Glynn, 2012). We need to help managers coach to employee strengths.

Managing up is a delicate art that walks a fine line with a superior.  If a manager is mostly strong, the effort can help advance a career.  But how should employees “manage up” with respect?  And when is managing up no longer worth it?

What is “Managing Up”?

Managing up means managing your boss by improving a boss’s efficiency and efficacy, says Kelsey Miller of Northeastern University.  It is when an employee recognizes a weakness in a superior and steps in to fill that space for the team.  Employees who manage up may initiate agendas and even roles in the manager/employee relationship.

For example, an employee may set priorities, meetings, communications, and accountability norms.  An employee may even initiate manager feedback (Thomas Kucera, LinkedIn).

Managing up can happen when an employee wants a strong manager but needs to become one himself when he (or the team) is not being managed.

Managing Up vs. Kissing Up

Managing up can be very noble and selfless—when it is done for the right reasons.  But some employees take on extra tasks and step in to lead only to benefit themselves.  This can be construed as kissing up: “It’s important to keep in mind, though, that there is a fine line between managing up for the overall benefit of the team and trying to manipulate your boss for your own personal gain,” says Miller.

When Managing Up is Helpful

Is an employee “managing up” to help with a short-term situation like when a boss is new and just learning the ropes?  Or when a manager has a personal situation and is taking time off?  If managing up is appropriate and done in a professional way, it will be received as helpful, and an employee will naturally benefit as a byproduct.  A good working relationship can bring about both parties’ best traits.  Employees should anticipate manager needs but be respectful and careful not to completely cut a manager out of his or her role.  “When your boss sees that you are willing to help him solve his problems it dramatically increases the trust he has in you. He will trust your skills, your loyalty, and ultimately will find you indispensable. The common sense says that when you are indispensable you are in much better negotiation position to get what you need,” says Kucera.

When Managing Up is Not Worth It

There is a difference between stepping in for a manager short-term and managing a manager whose personality or skill set is not suited to be a manager at all.  Look for these red flags:

  • A manager who blames everyone else when things go wrong.
  • A manager who does not listen to employees’ ideas or opinions at all (usually because they are afraid the employee has a better idea then they had).
  • A manager who does not care about building a trusting relationship with an employee.
  • A manager who threatens an employee by holding their job over their head.
  • A manager who cannot admit to making a mistake (Liz Ryan, Forbes).

If you are in a situation where the core values or personality of your manager do not align with your own, the best way to manage up may be to manage out.  You may need to get out of the situation.

If you are looking for a new role, Artemis Consultants can help you find a fit with a manager you respect.  Please visit our website to see a list of our current job postings.

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