Managing Up (The Right Way)

Managing up is a topic of interest among up and coming managers these days but recently the concept has been oversimplified and become somewhat caustic in its application. Engineering managers often find themselves in-between their own team and their senior managers and learning the proper application of managing up is key to creating new career opportunities while misapplication can result in embarrassing situations.

Managing Up Defined

Elizabeth Garone defined managing up as follows, in her 2008 Wall Street Journal article:

Managing up is: “Doing what you can to make your manager’s job easier will not only help them do their job, but you will be considered a valuable asset to your manager and to your organization,” she says. “You want to be described as indispensable.”

Although effective managing up can certainly have positive results, this does not mean managers can implement this approach at the exclusion of the basic tenets of management.  Managing up without managing the project at hand is dangerous and potentially caustic. Managers who only manage up, and ignore their own team under them, do so at their own peril.

An Alternative Approach

Wayne Turk offers a more effective definition in his 2007 Defense AT&L article “The Art of Managing Up.” In this article he focused on such items as:

  • Rich and value added two way communication
  • Provide solutions and not just problems
  • Be honest, trustworthy, loyal and committed
  • Self-awareness
  • Deep understanding of your “boss” and how your boss operates: what your boss believes, prefers, and pursues

The only way to properly follow Wayne’s analysis is if you are properly focused on your team, the organization and the mission.

“Healthy Tension” and How to Deliver Bad News

The first item on the list is focused on communication and proper communication requires a “healthy tension.” To communicate well is not just agreeing with your boss or blindly pursuing your boss’s agenda at all costs but also a sense of how to deliver data that contradicts the basic assumptions or fundamental direction of your “boss.” Such news is best aired in private, by his/her trusted associate (you). Your boss would much rather hear bad news coming from a subordinate in a private setting rather than in a public setting.

To be able to deliver the bad news, you need to know what the news really is. This requires a degree of “situational awareness” of your own team and subordinates that busy senior leaders may or may not have. As a trusted subordinate, it is essential that you have situational awareness and the ability to communicate it to your boss in a safe and effective way and the only way to do this is to properly manage in BOTH directions—up and down the hierarchy.

Managing Effectively in Both Directions

Your own team that works for you is at least half if not more of the overall eco-system that you must address as a manager. The remainder is the team you work for: the team above you, the cloud of managers and senior leaders that look at you, and all others under the organization’s microscope every day.

Senior leaders constantly decide who is and who is not among the “rising stars” of the organization and as a result, it is up to you distinguish yourself in both directions, to go the extra mile, and the truth is, to make your boss’s job easier is to make your own job, and hopefully your subordinates’ jobs easier as well.

Everyone, including your subordinates, wants to work for and be part of a winning team. Managing properly in both directions, although it takes a lot more energy, is part of the formula for success for your organization and for your career. This approach helps keep the lines of communication and command/control very tight and keeps the organization in alignment. To do this well requires a balance of managing up, down and all around, which is something that engineering managers need to get good at.

Do you have any tips for balancing managing up while effectively managing your own team? Have you witnessed managers become too absorbed with managing up while forgetting their own team?