Managing Up and Down

Credit: MaxPixel

“Managing up” can seem like a dirty word, I definitely thought so for a while, and deludedly aspired to be the kind of manager who did not need to be “managed up” (thankfully I have friends like Camille to call me on my bullshit). Now I can accept that 100% my team have to manage up with me. For example, I think they have all accepted that I’m 1) generally poor at administrivia and 2) prone to completely panic about it when otherwise stressed. But whilst I accept that aspect, I really hope it’s not the norm for our relationship.

Let’s take a step back, and think about some aspects of managing down:

  • Communicating in a way that is clear and comfortable for that person.
  • Working to build a relationship with them.
  • Making sure your expectations are clear.
  • Making sure that you follow up on things you agree to.
  • Helping them focus on their strengths.
  • Accepting them as falible humans (who – completely hypothetical example – can’t file expense reports on time).

Which… wait… are all things that we could also do with our managers?! Mind. Blown.

I think “managing up” becomes a dirty word because when we talk about it, we normally mean people who have to be managed up – because they make no effort to manage down. Or that they have to be “managed up” in a way that feels insincere, or unreasonable, or downright harmful.

The narcissist for whom everything has to be about them…

The person who doesn’t understand the basics of their own organisation…

The functional alcoholic who can’t be relied on…

The person with the temper that everyone tiptoes around to avoid setting off…

For a while I felt like I needed to get better at “managing up”. In the end, what that looked like was 1) treating my manager like a human being, 2) being organised and communicating clearly, 3) following up. Which now I write it down, looks a lot like “doing my job”. But to be more clear – it is the part of my job where it’s clear to my manager what’s going on and (to a certain extent) why, communicated in a way that is manageable for him.

I think that sometimes the people who have the hardest time “managing up” are those who work really hard to “manage down”. They know the effort they put in for their team, and resent that their manager doesn’t do that for them. Which – yeah, it would be great if everyone made that kind of effort. But it’s never wise to judge someone else’s impact against our own effort.

At a minimum, everyone needs to “manage up”, but we might call the basics “being a decent human being” or “operating as part of a team”. ICs need to treat their managers as human beings, and to accept that part of being on a team means accepting certain things – teammates, process, etc – because when we’re part of a team, none of us get to have everything our way. It’s the trade-off we make to build bigger things than we can do alone. Managers need to do a bit more managing up – the more responsibility someone has, the more you have to help them focus on what’s important within what you’re responsible for.

The other thing that comes with the idea of “managing up” is “don’t bring problems bring solutions” which I think is nonsense. It discourages people from sharing their concerns, and creates a mindset of fixing bugs rather than understanding deeper issues – which can create a team that’s drowning in process, and more dysfunctional than ever. Sometimes people bring me solutions, and invariably we have an interesting (for me, at least) conversation about what problem this solution is supposed to address and why. But I think the other thing this phrase does is it discourages communicating problems that you already have the power to solve. That you’re working on this problem is not a bad thing for your manager to be aware of. Personally, I don’t expect managers on my team not to have problems, but what I do expect is that 1) they learn how to surface them themselves and 2) the problems are different over time. With my manager I tend to tell him about problems whilst clearly saying whether this is just for his information, that I would value his advice, or that I need his help.

Finally, it occurs to me that a lot of what we term “politics” is people who make an effort with others when it suits them. So at it’s most toxic, probably a lot of managing up, a little managing sideways… and very little managing down. It’s probably worth distinguishing between political people (who behave like this in a way that is self-serving), and political organisations (where operating like this is required to get things done). Save me from both, frankly, but they are different.

What do you think? Leave a comment!

2 replies on “Managing Up and Down”

Managing Up by treating one’s manager as a human being certainly works if they are a good manager. I suspect it works if they are just a mediocre manager, so long as they are trying and mean well.

After surviving the worst engineering leader of my entire career, I don’t think that style of managing up would have been sufficient. This person believed in public humiliation as a motivational technique, believed that the right way to handle poor feedback on their performance as a manager was to identify who had likely given that feedback and try to get rid of them, etc. Managing upwards was much more an exercise in trying to anticipate and head off the worst case outcomes in order to be left with the merely bad outcomes.

It is over a year later, and I think I’m still recovering. I certainly thought about leaving during the time I worked for that person, but I had done a fairly good job of shielding the team from it and couldn’t bear to just abandon them to it.

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