The Downside of Managing Up

If it wasn’t for lies you’d be true
I know you could be just like you should
If it wasn’t for bad you’d be good
If It Wasn’t for Bad, B. Taupin (c)


I had lunch with a former colleague the other day, and I asked about her boss, who was also a friend of mine.  She said all the boss did was “manage up.”
Boy did that bring up some bad memories.  It seemed most managers and directors and up  at my former place of employment focused on managing up, to the detriment of the people they were supposed to be managing.

I was summoned to a meeting once by the senior attorney who managed the group I was in.  She chastised us for not being more collegial.  (She did not see the irony in this).  (You should have seen the look on the bantam rooster’s face.  He thought he was the boss! More on him later.)
One of the things she said that stuck with me was: “Your job is to make your boss look good.”

Wow.  And I thought my job was to provide legal services to the company.  I guess not.  For a 50 year-old woman, I was pretty naïve.   That’s what I’ve been missing!  Silly me thought that if I did my job well, that in itself would make the boss look good.

Welcome to the world of managing up, or as we use to call it, brown-nosing.

Don’t we all feel this way at some point?

So what exactly is “managing up”?  Once again, a fancy name is given to a concept that has always been in everyone’s vocabulary.   In its simplest terms, it means to focus on your relationship with your boss in order to get the best results for yourself, according to W2W Link.

Before starting this post, I did some research on the topic of managing up.  To my surprise, all I found were tips on how to do it.  Like this one from a well-known blogger:  7 Ways to Manage up.

It wasn’t until I found this article in the  New York Times that I read anything negative about managing up.  In this article, Kim Bowers, the CEO of CST Brands, says she prefers people who are good at managing down rather than up:

I put people into two different categories: people who manage up really well and people who manage down really well, and I love the latter. If I find someone whose team would walk across hot coals for them, that’s the person I want to work with because I know there is authenticity there, and they are supporting their teams and vice versa. It’s the folks who manage up really well but have this underlying storm all the time who concern me because you don’t know if they’re just trying to charm to cover up. You want to make sure they’ve got the base behind them to go forward.

Thank you Kim!  A good manager is a good leader who inspires his or her staff to do their best.
I also found an interesting article in Forbes.  In this article, the author says what I had been thinking for several years as I attempted to navigate a corporate culture intent on managing up to the exclusion of everything else:  “While the premise of “managing-up” is sound, the reality of how it’s most commonly implemented is representative of everything that’s wrong with business today.”

You see, I was good at managing down.  I had a staff of four women who operated the contracting process.  They were awesome.  I taught them what they needed to do, and then let them do their jobs.  They handled every issue they knew they were capable of handling, and came to me when they needed help.  The clients LOVED them.  And, if I can believe what they told me (and I think I can), they liked working with me.  I like to think it was because I did not micro manage them.  I let them do their jobs, but I was always available when they needed me.  I also did not treat them like second-class citizens.

Right before I left that pit of dysfunction, I asked my staff why I couldn’t seem to handle the corporate environment.

“Because you care,” was the answer.

Another good example of how managing up can be detrimental to a healthy work environment was the VP of one of the departments (excuse me, “business functions”) that I supported.  She had a degree in finance or accounting, and it showed.  One of her directors told me once that she rejected his expense report because he had over-tipped on a business meal by something like 85 cents.  I don’t remember the exact amount, but it was under a dollar.

Why did she do that?  Well, because the company had a policy about tipping, and he did not comply.  So the expense report had to be rejected.  Her management was counting on her (no pun intended) to manage the budget and control costs, and she was more than up to the task.

Did she stop to think about how demoralizing it is to have an expense report rejected because of 85 cents?  Apparently not.

My friend at lunch explained that her boss did not understand what she did.

For example, “metrics” and “service levels” are ways of measuring performance.   My friend’s boss kept asking her for service levels– how long does it take to do a contract from start to finish?, she asked.
That depends on many factors, my friend tried to explain, including the complexity of the deal, whether the business terms keep changing (which they often do), and how willing the other side is to negotiate.
Just give me some numbers, the boss insisted.  Is it one week, 6 weeks, 6 months?

The answer is, all of the above.  But the manager, who had probably already promised her manager that she would come up with some metrics, insisted on it.  Since she had no understanding of how the contracting process operated, she could not understand why metrics don’t work on a process that has multiple variables that are out of the purchasing agent’s control.  If she had taken the time to learn the process, she would have known better than to ask the question, and, better yet, she could explain it to her boss.
I’m not saying that people should not manage up.  It’s key to getting ahead.  But if managing up is practiced to the exclusion of managing down properly, what is the cost?

These are my top 10 downsides of managing up:

  1. The manager does not have the staff’s backs.  A brown-noser will sacrifice a minion in a heartbeat.
  2. Lack of mentors.  Mentors care about the people who work for them.  They try to help their mentees get ahead.  If the manager is consumed with keeping her boss happy, there is no time or focus left to mentor anyone.
  3. Managers don’t bother to get to know the people who report to the people who report to them, i.e., the minions.   I would argue that it could be somewhat demoralizing to stand next to your boss’s boss, someone who should know who you are, but should, and have the boss not say hello or good morning, or shine my shoes, bitch.  The boss had no idea who she was.
  4. Managers make promises to their bosses that their subordinates are forced to deliver, even when they don’t make any sense.  I call this “writing a check that your a– can’t cash.”  This used to happen all the time.  A director would promise his manager that he would get a contract signed before x date, and come hell or high water, it had to be done. This usually resulted in the company giving in on business or legal terms, just to get the damn thing signed.
  5. Results matter more than people. In order to get a promotion, a manager has to deliver results. A promise made must be kept, no matter what the cost to the folks who report to the manager.
  6. Managers can’t make accurate performance evaluations because they don’t understand fully what their staff is doing.  As if the performance appraisal system is not political enough already, it becomes a crap shoot.  It reminds me of frat brothers voting to admit new members and someone throws a black marble into the bowl.  Blackballed.
  7. Managers don’t advocate for their staff in the appraisal process.
  8. Managers don’t know what is really going on because they never hear the truth from their subordinates. Isn’t that the essence of brown-nosing– only telling your boss the things you think he wants to hear.  This can lead to disaster for the manager if he or she is caught unaware by his or her director.  Or perhaps the GC being reamed by the CEO in front of the senior management team.   And we all know that doo-doo rolls down hill.  So who ultimately gets the blame?  The minions.
  9. It makes for a sucky place to work.
  10. Morale, and therefore productivity, suffer.

Please feel free to comment and add your own example of managing up run amok.  I’d love to hear your thoughts because sometimes I wonder if I’m missing the mark.  I know I can’t be the only person who feels this way.  At any company.


1 thought on “The Downside of Managing Up

  1. Thank you for the reminder of why I left that same workplace in 2013 Renata. For me, reading your post was a walk down Memory Lane, and it wasn’t pleasant. The reality of the situation at Altria is that most managers believe that the only way to succeed is to manage up. Don’t get me wrong, I have always believed it important to make my boss look good, but I have accomplished this through achieving positive results and being of value to the company. At Altria fear was rampant and risk was avoided at all costs. The love I have for my profession and my passion for mentoring others was squelched in that environment and like you, I was miserable.

    Nothing much has changed there since we decided to resign, but I am so much happier and healthier now than I was then. Life is short and a toxic work environment is simply not worth any amount of money.


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