Should You Train Employees to Manage Up?

Helping employees optimize not just their own needs and work, but that of the people working above them.

More than once in my career I have experienced managers who needed to be managed themselves. When that happens, an employee can either suffer silently, demonstrating poor performance stemming from a lack of competent guidance—or manage up. My choice has been to manage up whenever necessary.

In my first full-time job after graduate school, I had a manager who was brilliant and talented, but mercurial and temperamental. She told a story of throwing papers in the face of a supervisor early in her career. Years later, when she became a manager herself, that exact behavior wasn’t repeated, but it was clear that her emotions were in the lead in how she approached her job. When the employee working directly under her showed signs of being unprofessional and unfair, the manager chose to whisper and collaborate with the employee rather than correct the behavior.

Toward me, this supervisor was strangely—and obviously—competitive rather than supportive. She was often unfriendly and unpleasant, and appeared more jealous than happy when I successfully completed assignments. It was clear this supervisor was more interested in competing with me than developing me to become my best. Becoming my best, if that meant better than her, was the last thing she wanted.

I remember repeatedly going into our boss’ office to directly address the unprofessional and puzzling behavior of this manager, and was consistently told she hadn’t noticed anything and that it must be my imagination. In response, I went into overdrive, doing all I could to work as hard and well as I could, while deciding to reflect the errant supervisor’s behavior back to her. I stopped trying to be friendly and pleasant. She looked at me with a stone face when we interacted; I started doing the same. I was able to stay successfully with the job long enough to leave voluntarily while delivering great work. My managing up approach worked from a professional survival perspective, but could I have been trained to handle this situation better?

A two-part Forbes article by Karl Moore on “Managing Up in a Virtual Workplace” considers how employees can optimize not just their own needs and work, but that of the people working above them.

The article notes that it can be helpful to “study your manager.” In the case of the troubled supervisor, and our equally, if not more, troubled boss, studying the boss resulted in my determination that all I could do was the best job possible and to mirror the unfriendly supervisor’s manner. What would a Learning professional have advised? When you try repeatedly to directly address a problem with a boss, and you’re told it’s just your imagination, what is the next recourse? Maybe training on managing up could have given me a better “script” to use when approaching these conversations, or could have given me insights into personality types different from my own. It might be that the main problem was a personality clash with the supervisor, which greater insights into how she thought and operated might have helped to clear up.

Another experience I have had is the boss who isn’t communicative. What happens when you have a manager who is highly disorganized and forgetful while you’re a fairly organized person with a good, almost obsessive, memory? E-mails and even text messages and phone calls are not responded to, and critical information is not imparted. He may have thought he imparted the information and never did, or may have forgotten altogether to communicate it.

This management style reminds me of a person wildly throwing balls into the air hoping someone will happen to catch the balls, rather than planning who will catch each ball and how it will be done. The strategy I came up with was to try as hard as I could to get answers to questions, and then to make the best decisions I could on my own and complete the work on time. The alternative was to become paralyzed in my work process and miss deadlines. What would manage-up training teach in this case? Would it be to come up with a solution that helps keep the manager on track? Eventually, the company hired an additional employee who created shared Google Sheets to keep us all—especially the boss—on track. It somewhat worked, but communication gaps remained.

Scheduling a “drop-in” time is another suggestion from the article. A weekly meeting that is held on the same day and time can be a solution to ensure that regular communication occurs, but only if the participants of the meeting keep the weekly appointment. There were many times I remember traveling to a manager’s office and waiting for up to 15 minutes before I gave up and left, realizing he had forgotten about the meeting. The same thing happened so often over the phone that the weekly appointment became something that neither of us took for granted was likely to happen. What was the manage-up solution here? Should I have been trained to be the enforcer of meetings? The hard part of managing up is holding the feet to the fire of a person who is in control of your professional life rather than the other way around.

The question of whether to encourage employees to manage up is one of corporate culture. Do you want a bottom-up organization, one in which employees, regardless of their place in the organization hierarchy, do what needs to be done to get the job done? What if that means becoming a disciplinarian and enforcer to a boss? What culture decisions, and related training, have you delivered to help employees get the most out of their bosses?