Sunday 6 October 2013

The conundrum of managing upwards : “I am managing my manager as much as I thought my manager would be managing me!"

Most of us understand the concept of being managed by our managers but having to manage our managers is as important. ‘Managing upwards’ is "a conscious, deliberate effort to build a strong relationship of understanding and cooperation between ourselves and our bosses.” The word 'deliberate' in this definition potentially positions 'managing upwards' as being ‘manipulative’ in nature, however, Wayne Turk clarifies – “Managing up or managing the boss sounds good in theory, but isn’t it just another term for manipulating the boss or being the boss’s toady? No! Managing the boss is a way to have a win-win-win situation where everyone, including the organization and project, wins. Failure to manage the boss can result in misunderstandings about expectations and cause wasted time and effort on tasks not in line with organizational goals or the project’s needs. And looking at it from a purely self-serving perspective, career progress rarely happens if you don’t manage your boss successfully.” I am in agreement to this but was perturbed to read the last two lines that brought in a self-serving perspective and gives the right caution. We risk impacting our career trajectory if we are not aligned with our manager!

New entrants to the corporate arena usually call their parents to proudly declare that they are joining an organisation (the bigger the brand the better the sense of relief on the part of the parent!) but fail to understand the implication that they have an ‘employment contract’ with an organisational entity but a (far more important) ‘employment relationship’ with a manager. Forget new entrants even many already employed fail to realise that they will spend a large part of their lives being judged by a manager in the organisation that they have ‘chosen’ to join. Their job security is linked to how their manager views their contribution primarily to the manager’s objectives and then only to the organisation’s objectives. [I am sure to be challenged on this front but this is the reality]. From top to bottom each layer of management will add their ‘localisation’ while attempting to maintain goal alignment.

The fundamental premise in ‘managing upwards’ is that managers are consistent and homogeneous in how they interact, review and manage their sub-ordinates in an organisation. Unfortunately, systemic performance management systems are executed by managers with individual character, styles and beliefs. Something that performance management systems attempt to eliminate by including various checks and balances but nevertheless a perennial threat if the performance management element is not undertaken as per the corporate ‘cook book’ (i.e. conform to procedure and prescribed standards). This is even more challenging as most large organisations implement a stack-rank based performance management system that is the basis for deciding your remuneration or rewards. Clearly then it is critical to 'manage upwards' to ensure longevity that is supported by periodic material gain (promotions and increases). Managing your manager’s perception and your own perception of your performance is a great challenge as it is known that employees (in general) are likely to over-rate their performance vs. their manager’s assessment.

Lonnie Pacelli (outlines 13 excellent tips on how to manage upwards) highlights the spirit of 'managing upwards' and identifies a key concern – “When done poorly, both manager and employee are not only ineffective at getting the job done but are chronically frustrated due to mis-steps and surprises.” I was pondering about the chronic frustration alluded here when Ilya Pozin posted an article that resonated with me “Don't Work For Your Boss, Work For Your Company”! Ilya outlined a few ideas and tips to focus on how to work for the company without being too fixated about ‘managing upwards’! His tips are clear and unambiguous but he highlighted that he was implementing them in a start-up type environment. I swallowed hard as I realised that a majority of his readers would not be working for a start-up nor do they have the metaphorical ‘clean slate’ to start from. We are part of a system that has been built up and solidified. Pragmatically, the ability to change the same or argue against the same is beyond my capacity and patience nor the intent of this blog.

We know that most employees resign from their bosses rather than resign from an organisation! In light of this, surely there is a need to help employees manage upwards [or for HR practitioners to reflect on why employees need to be taught to upwards if we believe that an organisation’s performance management system is working flawlessly! ]. From a training point of view I recommend a module by Harvard ManageMentor titled ‘Managing Upwards’, however, such training is usually stand-alone with zero alignment or holistic support on the part of an organisation. This is why Devashish Chakravarty's caution is critical  – “No business school offers a course on it. Books on management do not cover it (a psychology textbook maybe). There is no HR manual or corporate training to master it. Yet this ignored aspect of management is the cornerstone of a successful career - knowing how to manage your boss.” There is a huge focus on the performance management and appraisal methodology as well as strategies to homogenise the 'manager-to-employee' relationship but not much happening on the relationship flow from 'employee-to-manager'. A route that will deliver far more dividends in terms of engagement and productivity! This skill seems to be one that is left to chance and based upon learning histories (of which not all will be favourable or memorable!). On the job learning as a premise for something this critical is surprising.

I don't have advice on 'managing upwards' as there are enough ideas available on the links included above. If your goal is to grow and get a promotion at any cost and if that means that you are willing to spend a disproportionate time managing to the personal style of your manager then that is clearly your prerogative. Just be comfortable in answering -the simple question(s) of - Why are you managing upwards? How do you feel about it? If you don’t feel good about it then what do you intend doing about it? For me I joined an organisation not a fan club! If I believe or feel that my skills in managing upwards are taking me away from my core beliefs and making a sycophant of me then clearly it is in my interest to take a call, which includes moving away from a manager. The only caution would be to note that leaving a manager on occasion can mean exiting your organisation! 

I close with meaningful insight from Mike Myatt – “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. It’s human nature to attempt to control circumstances where possible. It’s also quite normal to desire to position yourself well with those you report to. That said, it’s important to understand the realities, rules and boundaries associated with organizational structure. Newsflash – as much as you don’t want to hear this, there is a good reason why you’re reporting to someone else – you’re probably not ready to be the boss yet.”

What do you think?


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  1. I really appreciate your posts. They provide much needed insight into how to navigate my corporate journey. You have in a sense become my virtual mentor!

    1. My pleasure...hope you have managed to subscribe via email so that you can get this on a regular basis? Thanks for supporting me on this journey.