Janet Brady, PhD

Organisational Linguist

Managing Up – What the Gurus Don’t Tell You


I sometimes wonder if Gurus practice managing up themselves. For example, their readers – presumably subordinates seeking a few tips on managing up – get asked:

Q.1: Do you know your blind spots?
Q.2: Do you take the primary responsibility for managing the relationship with your manager?
Q.3: Do you understand your manager?
Q.4: Do you speak with other staff members about their insights into your manager?

I am sure the Gurus would consider the answers below are incorrect. Do they resonate with you though?
A.1: If I know my “blind spots”, are they “blind” spots?
A.2: What’s my manager getting paid for?
A.3: Not even Freud or Machiavelli would go there…
A.4: You should hear the stuff they have on our manager!

When Gurus suggest that subordinates take the primary responsibility for managing the relationship with their manager, subordinates are positioned as the active agent. The Gurus suggest a number of strategies for managing this relationship such as:

  • Put yourself in his shoes.
  • Compensate for his weaknesses.
  • Be non-confronting, like in a marriage.

The tone reminds me of the mythical 1950’s Good Wife’s Guide. By framing the role of subordinates as their manager’s “enabler”, Gurus ignore the role of managers and their work of managing.

The Gurus pose the following question to their readers:
Q.5: Are you open and receptive to feedback and advice, and refrain from becoming defensive?

I have my own question for the Gurus:

Should managers be equally open and receptive to feedback and advice, and also refrain from becoming defensive?

Managing Up in Practice – SME’s

I have worked in SME’s with no HR staff, no management development programs, and no 360-degree performance evaluation tools. In these companies, employees don’t have the anonymity provided by 360-degree feedback tools. If you choose to give feedback to your manager – often the business owner – you give feedback face-to-face. In other words, managing up is the only option when you want to make your voice heard.

My experience and that of colleagues suggest Gurus restrict themselves to rosy scenarios that bear little resemblance to real life. Their advice overlooks strategies for:

  1. Managing the power differential in the manager-subordinate relationship.
  2. Preparing for a strong reaction from the manager who may dislike receiving feedback.
  3. Being ignored when the manager – often the business owner – has access to confidential information or hidden agendas that trivialise feedback.
  4. Dealing with high levels of stress when giving feedback.
  5. Repairing potentially damaged relationships with the manager and others.
  6. Being viewed as a whistle blower with the possibility of being side-lined or managed out.

Managing Up in Practice – A Large Organisation

To be fair, perhaps the Gurus are writing for employees in large companies.

Unlike the SME’s above, my research site is a large company with extensive HR functions, a leadership curriculum, and a 360-degree feedback tool. This 360-degree tool is used by managers at all levels of the organisation to give feedback annually (see my previous article). In addition, managers are expected to provide regular performance coaching to team members throughout the year.

Anna, one of my research participants, received little coaching from her manager Kim. She discussed the problem with her peers (see Q.4 above). She documented her evidence and organised a meeting with Kim and their senior manager Chris (see Q.2 above). Anna put it this way:

“We were getting to a crisis point where I had to sit down and, you know, I planned the meeting. A 4-page meeting planner. It was that important. I’d spoken with people and got quotes.”

The Gurus advise us that when we share the same goals as our managers, there is little chance of disagreement. Anna thought she was working towards the achievement of common goals. Anna and fellow team members wanted coaching. Their organisation wanted managers to coach staff. However, the meeting did not unfold as anticipated by Anna. She was told that the problem lay with her, not Kim. Anna told me:

“The feedback I got from Chris was that ultimately the problem was mine and not Kim’s. I thought I was honestly making an enormous step to change and to effectively make things better, but it didn’t work that way.

Do you get a brick and bang them over the head and say, ‘For God’s sake, can you not see? I’m telling you, and you still can’t see that this is how people are affected?’ It’s like a blinker is put on.”

While Anna’s managers rejected her feedback at the time of the meeting, her efforts did bring about change. Kim was seconded to a “special project” with no staff. Anna was later promoted to a position in a different business unit. This position was subsequently made redundant.

Managing up, or giving feedback upwards, appears to be problematic for subordinates regardless of organisation size or HR practices.

Managing Up – The Voice of Experience

riskPerhaps the Gurus should ask subordinates the following questions:

  1. Is the risk and potential cost of giving feedback too high right now?
  2. Might it be wiser to remain silent?

Managing up? Proceed with caution!


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