The Rise of "Managing Up" in Leadership: Why It's Wrong-Headed
Updated: Feb 24
The Negative Implications of "Managing Up" in Leadership: Why We Need to Do Better
It was about 3 years ago that I first heard the phrase, 'good at managing up'. Before then I lived blithely in a world free of notions that, 'managing up' could not only be a thing, but a thing considered by some a desirable trait in leadership. I learned the phrase from a well-meaning colleague by way of tacit explanation as to why an extremely toxic sponsor not only appeared to get away with their behaviour, but had it actively rewarded.
Since then, I'm sad to say I've heard it multiple times. Time number two it was said admiringly of a prospective colleague who seemed great at securing roles well above ability and experience. Time number three it came from a head of function as a criticism of one of my direct reports, as in, 'not very good at managing up'. This seemingly because the report wasn't demonstrating the requisite amount of forelock tugging during their interactions. Finally it was said to me by a senior leader, without any apparent irony, as a justification of why another Senior Leadership Team member had no awareness of the dysfunction reigning supreme in their business function. As a follow-up to that, an HR practitioner shortly after said, 'because our Senior Leadership Team members manage up and out...', as if it's a given of senior leadership practice and therefore a perfectly justifiable and reasonable leadership tactic.
I loathe this and I think it's wrong headed. In my decades in change management practice the thing that's kept me going personally is the thought that if I can do something in any small way, to make things better for the people that really make an organisation work, then it's been worthwhile. And by 'really make an organisation work',
I mean the workers that slog it out on the call centre, call after call, hour after hour, the people who staff the counter and feel the customers pain and go the extra mile to get the need met, the people who pack up the product, and seal and ship out the boxes and sweep up the warehouse at the end of the day, the people who dig the trenches and lay the cables and make the switch work when you flick it on.
Now maybe that's because Grandpa worked on the railways and my dad delighted in writing, 'anarchist' in the profession box on the national census. But for goodness sake, people are given a position of leadership because the people who do the work and deliver the value need support. Am I missing something here or is that it? So, isn't it these people that leaders should focus on?
Interestingly, I've also noticed that with the rise of, 'managing up' the concept of LBWA (Leadership By Walking Around) or GOTB (Get Out of the Building) has also fallen out of favour. In the larger organisations I've worked in the complete absence of presence of senior leadership, at the level at which the work actually gets done, has often astounded me. How can you lead your people if you don't know what they do - I mean really do? You won't get that by reading a report, or looking at a dashboard, but by walking around your floors and sitting down for 10 mins to ask what people are doing, what's the best thing about their role, what's the worst and what really needs fixing?
At every forum I've gone to over the last couple of years someone trots out the appalling stats on how many projects fail (around 61% according to this 2012 research) or the latest excoriating Gallup poll results on how chronically disengaged the modern workforce is (13% of workforce actively engaged). I think this has some correlation to the rise of 'managing up' and the fall of Leadership By Walking Around.
To shamelessly paraphrase Oriah Mountain Dreamer's famous poem, 'The Invitation' for business purposes...
'I don't care how many senior leader off sites you've attended, how many photos of you at awards ceremonies are plastered on the intranet or how many times you've fronted the Minister.'
What I care about is that in the still of the morning when the major change goes live, you're out there at the coal face with your people supporting them to make it work and taking away their pain, actively understanding the issues, actively enabling the fixes, so you can all collectively take away your customers pain and deliver what needs to be done.' That's what true leaders do.
Marshall Goldsmith, the great American leadership coach said,
"For the great achiever it's all about 'me', for the great leader it's all about 'them'."
While 'managing up' may seem like a quick fix for short-term gains, research has shown that it can have negative effects on the organization's effectiveness and long-term success. Here are some references that substantiate these claims:
Latham, G. P. (2012). Leadership, motivation, and group behavior in organizations. In Handbook of psychology, second edition (pp. 515-540). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Riggio, R. E., & Lee, J. (2007). Emotional and interpersonal competencies and leader development. Human Resource Management Review, 17(4), 418-426.
Van Velsor, E., McCauley, C. D., & Ruderman, M. (2010). The Center for Creative Leadership Handbook of Leadership Development. John Wiley & Sons.
Crossan, M. M., Lane, H. W., & White, R. E. (1999). An organizational learning framework: From intuition to institution. Academy of Management Review, 24(3), 522-537.
Gibson, J. W., Greenwood, R. A., & Murphy, E. F. (2009). When managing up undermines organizational learning. Organizational Dynamics, 38(3), 165-172.
These references discuss how 'managing up' can lead to a lack of trust and transparency within the organization, as well as a focus on short-term gains rather than long-term success. Additionally, they highlight the importance of leadership development and emotional and interpersonal competencies for effective leadership, which may be hindered by a culture of 'managing up'.
So whilst "managing up" may seem like a smart strategy to advance one's career, it can actually have negative consequences for both the individual and the organization as a whole.
When individuals focus too much on managing up, they may neglect their responsibilities towards their team or their department. This can lead to a lack of collaboration and communication, which ultimately impacts the organization's productivity and effectiveness.
Furthermore, when individuals prioritize managing up, they may become disconnected from the realities of the organization. By only focusing on pleasing their superiors, they may lose sight of the bigger picture and fail to identify important issues that need to be addressed. This can lead to missed opportunities for growth and development, as well as potential risks that could have been avoided.
In addition, managing up can create a culture of politics and favoritism, where individuals prioritize their own interests over the good of the organization. This can lead to resentment among colleagues and a lack of trust in leadership, ultimately undermining the effectiveness of the organization as a whole.
Despite these potential negative effects, there is still hope for organizations to foster a culture of collaboration and communication that encourages individuals to focus on their responsibilities towards their team and the organization as a whole. By creating a culture of transparency and open communication, organizations can ensure that everyone's voice is heard and that individuals are able to contribute their ideas and perspectives.
Ultimately, the success of an organization depends on the collective efforts of all its members. By focusing on managing up, individuals may gain short-term benefits, but in the long run, the negative effects will outweigh the positives. It is only by working together towards a common goal that organizations can achieve their full potential and thrive in today's competitive landscape.
My advice, if you're a leader and you want to find Your People - don't look up.
Barb Grant is a change management consultant with three decades experience helping organizations navigate change transitions and achieve their goals. Barb has worked with companies of all sizes, from startups to international corporates.
Throughout her career, Barb has developed a deep understanding of the impact that effective leadership can have on an organization's success. She has seen firsthand how 'managing up' can create a culture of fear and distrust, leading to decreased morale, productivity, and innovation.
Drawing on her extensive knowledge and expertise, Barb has written numerous articles and given presentations on change management, leadership, and organizational culture. Her insights and strategies have helped countless businesses improve their operations, increase employee engagement, and achieve long-term success.
Barb believes that by fostering a culture of collaboration and open communication, organizations can not only survive but thrive in the face of challenges and uncertainty.
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