Managing Up?

We coach, develop and work alongside leaders and teams to shift ideas on leadership and provide the skills and tools needed to grow teams.


Author: Phil Hartwick
First Published: 2021

Managing Up?  What is it and why is it a double-edged sword? 

I have occasionally described specific people I have worked with as  ‘managing up’ well.

And when I refer to this skill, I’m generally not thinking positive things.

I have also heard others speak of ‘managing up’ as a nefarious attribute. These comments usually come from individuals who have lost confidence or trust in the person.

So what do we mean, when we say a person ‘manages up’ really well?

What I think most of us mean by ‘managing up’ is someone who is very careful about what their manager or key stakeholders see and hear. They make sure the impression is that everything is going great, and that they have got things under control. They want stakeholders and their manager to see that they are high performers.

From a people leader’s perspective, I would hate to have this type of person working for or alongside me. I would want to have people who are honest and tell the whole story. I would want people who are less worried about how they look, than telling it like it really is.

And yet I suspect many people unconsciously  ‘manage up’ in this way; painting a rosier than real picture. And that they may even think that this is a good thing.

Why? Well I think as a general rule, most of us want to please and impress our immediate managers, and perhaps to an even higher degree, their managers and other senior stakeholders. We want them to not have to worry and get involved in the small stuff. We want them to know we can handle the daily issues and problems and even the real challenges. We also fear others stepping in to tell us how to handle things we know how to handle. We therefore tend to minimise or gloss over some of the ‘not-so-good’ stuff.

And that is mostly all fine – until it comes ‘spin doctoring’. That is, spinning the story by cherry-picking the information that is conveyed up, while cutting out other relevant and important information. Or worse, telling the story in a way to make oneself look good, particularly at the expense of others.

A senior manager was telling me a just a while ago that she had discovered a serious case of ‘managing up’.

What happened was that a group of individuals, (who all report to one of her managers), were so concerned about what they felt was inaccurate information being provided by their manager, that they came to her directly with a list of grievances, including fear of how they were being managed. There was a range of serious complaints.

This came as a complete surprise to the senior manager and to other senior managers who had been apparently ‘well up managed’.

An investigation was undertaken which uncovered a number of serious spin doctoring practices, where serious situations were down-played, and some inappropriate behaviours and actions were taken that were invisible. Ultimately a resignation resulted and hopefully a lesson learned by all involved.

It seems apparent to me there is one golden rule to working well with your manager that will serve us all well:

Keep your manager informed –

keep it accurate,
keep it timely,
tell the good and the bad and don’t spin it to make yourself look better.

i.e. No surprises. Easy.

Of course, this is easy as long as your manager doesn’t make you feel unsafe, unpopular or uncomfortable to tell it like it is.

Where managers are prone to cast judgement and blame, and in particular single out those who speak the truth or bring the truth to the surface, what we see is the kind of managing up that gets everyone in real trouble and that others hate.  Finger pointing = managing up spin doctoring.

Suggestion 1:  Uncover what your motivation is.

Don’t let your desire to impress, your personal ambition or competitiveness cause you to distort what you share with managers above you.

Others (and possibly even the stakeholders you report to) will soon label you as someone who  ‘manages up’ well and you may quickly become someone they don’t trust.

Suggestion 2: Develop a communication contract

To do this, set some time aside with each of your important stakeholders and managers to find out what they most want to be aware of, and how they would prefer to get that information. Essentially develop a ‘communication and reporting contract’.

Then, periodically check-in with them to confirm they are getting what they want and make adjustments if need be.

And of course, try to always communicate with honest, timely and accurate information. Be targeted to provide what they want to be aware of, and be clear about what help you need, if any.

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