Is managing up a bad thing?

Originally posted Jan 21, 2020

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One of the topics I’m asked to write about with some frequency is “managing up”. So I asked on Twitter:

The responses were wide-ranging, and illustrated to me: we need a shared definition of what “managing up” means before we can even begin to tackle it! Here’s mine: managing up is about routinely iterating on and improving your relationship with a person who has more power than you do. That includes asking for help, giving feedback, and setting (and resetting) shared expectations.

There is a TON of content to cover here, so I’m going to make this a two-part series. In this one, I talk about:

And in this post, I get into what information you need before you can effectively manage up, and how to get your manager to help you.

I hope it helps :) —Lara

Is managing up a bad thing?

I received a surprising amount of people asking this question, or sharing that they perceived managing up as something to be avoided. For example:

“I’ve always saw managing up as a reflection of some sort of management/trust/communication dysfunction (to varying degrees) vs part of my work process; that in an ideal situation, managing up should be minimal.” —@shohct

This surprised me, but then Amy Nguyen posed this beautiful question:

“relating to the point about people having diff definitions, when is it good or bad to do this? if I have to drag my manager through their job, something else should change, right? where is the line btwn being proactive vs working around someone who’s not doing their job?”

Everyone’s going to have a different answer to this; here’s mine: your manager has more power than you do, and you are going to disagree with how they use their power sometimes. This is normal! If you agreed with those around you all the time, I’d be worried.

We manage up because we can’t control how our managers use their power, but we can, often, influence it. Influencing those around us is the way that the world works, not just with management relationships, but in the rest of our daily lives, too. Remember: your manager has a limited amount of information, just like you do. (Just like we all do!)

Sometimes, this is an awful situation. Sometimes, it’s infuriating and draining to influence your manager—to try and communicate with them differently, or get them to give you what you need to do your job, or deliver repeated difficult feedback to them. If it’s costing you more than it’s benefitting the situation, consider extricating yourself.

But other times? Managing up—a.k.a. asking questions, giving feedback, changing their perspective—is helpful, necessary, and the benefits outweigh the costs of you doing this work. I’ll talk about how to use these skills effectively in next week’s newsletter.

But now, let’s check out how senior leaders describe what it looks like from their point of view.

What do execs think about managing up?

I asked VP’s/C-level people to reply to my share a description of a time when a direct report of theirs “managed up” in a way that was amazing. Here are some of my favorites.

Juan Pablo Buritica said:

“being “managed up” as an exec feels like my team has my back and they’re clearing obstacles for us, or zooming in on challenges that will impact us, and solving them. when my directs have my back, they directly have the back of the entire org, and we work better together.”

In fact, there was a theme of direct reports proactively addressing issues and then informing their managers after it was taken care of.

Jill Wetzler wrote about a time when one of the managers who reported to her made an excellent case for more headcount for his team, by creating a vision/strategy doc that was easily-shareable and compelling to other decision-makers (the exec team). I’m go into this more in this post—but right now, read this short thread. It’s gold!

Julia Grace shared how one of her direct reports asked her two powerful open questions before a big-deal meeting, which helped the report understand Julia’s (and other execs’) mindset, and ensure that the meeting content truly matched Julia’s priorities.

Jason Wong wrote:

“[One thing that’s worked on me is a] willingness to negotiate. This might be specific to me. In any sufficiently sized org, I already know I’m not going to get everything I want. If you counter me, you’re likely to get some concessions. Like @buritica says, do i want to be effective or do I want to be right?”

What a widely varied list of managing up examples! This isn’t a surprise: each manager is a different human in a different organization who needs different things. Sometimes, we need pushback. Sometimes, we need feedback. Sometimes, we just need someone else to handle things. Any of these might also be referred to as “doing your job” ;)

The crux here is that we often don’t know HOW to do these managing-up things effectively, unless we’ve seen it before, or had some training. So in this post, I talk about the how of managing up!

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Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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