Managing Up vs. Sucking Up

“Managing up” has a bad reputation – it’s often seen as a synonym for sucking up.  Isn’t it a waste of time that could have been used productively to move the team forward?  I disagree.  If you have a manager, managing up is part of your job.  And it should be.

Why Bother?

Let’s think for a minute about what a manager is supposed to do.  Among other things, they should

  • Have a clue about what you are doing and help, as appropriate (and no more than appropriate)
  • Backstop you to make sure your projects aren’t going off the rails
  • Manage up to their manager
  • Advocate and scout on your behalf
  • Understand key risks the team faces and make sure they are being managed
  • Give you guidance and hold you accountable

Now how are they supposed to do all that, if they don’t get any information flow from you?  If you’ve ever managed somebody, you may have discovered that mostly you have no idea what they do all day long.  This plays into one of the things I’ve noticed, which is that people often become easier to manage after they become a manager.

Many people push back on this idea of managing up.  They might object that

  • My accomplishments should speak for themselves, right?  Well, no.  Most managers see a tiny fraction of what you do.  They often can’t tell how much of the outcome you were responsible for.  And, they (should) care not just about what you achieve, but how.
  • Isn’t this overhead that makes us less efficient?  Yes.  Tough.  Part of the reality of being in a team is that it takes overhead to get groups of people to work well together.  Get over it.
  • Isn’t this a disguised name for sucking up?  Sometimes.  Stay tuned.

Ways to Screw This Up

From what I’ve seen, a lot of people aren’t very good at managing up.  They tend to fall into one of two traps:

  • Refusal to engage.  “I shouldn’t have to manage up – my work should speak for itself.”  If your manager is basically engaged in the same activity that you are, this may in fact be true – say your manager is a lead programmer who is in the codebase with you all day long.  But if your manager is not deeply and directly involved in your work, this is probably not going to work out well for you.  By failing to manage up, leaving your management chain in the dark, you are hurting the team and hurting yourself.  You are sabotaging your manager’s ability to do their job well.  If you hear phrases from your manager like “I feel out of the loop” or “I don’t have good visibility into this project” or “where did <this disaster> come from – I thought we were on track”, then you are probably failing to manage up well enough.
  • Looking like a suck up.  Managers vary a lot in their ability and desire to discourage this kind of behavior.  They are never as immune as they think, but even the lame ones can tell if you are really obvious about it.  Once they decide that you are a suck-up, they won’t trust what you tell them.   Your peers are also very good at sniffing it out .. and they won’t like you better for it.  Two quick tests to check yourself:
    • Are you reporting at least as much bad news as good?  If so, you are much less likely to be seen as a suck-up.  Don’t spend your “manage up” time taking victory laps.
    • Are you talking about other people’s accomplishments more often than your own?  That’s another good antidote.

When you bring bad news to your manager, they will often be inclined to start trying to fix it (with or without you).  If you want help, then that’s just what you were hoping for.  But often, you don’t want help.  You own the problem, you are on it, and you are just keeping your manager informed.  So make sure that you are clear when reporting a problem whether you want help.

Food for Thought

Here are some principles that I have found helpful:

  • Managing up is part of your job – help your manager be effective in doing their job
  • Be transparent: bad news is the news they have to have.  Don’t sandbag your management chain – they hate that.
  • Be very explicit in your own mind and with your manager whether you want help with a problem that you are reporting
  • Shine the light on others more often than yourself
  • Figure out how your manager likes to be kept in the loop – it varies a lot depending on the person

Are you doing this part of your job well?  What’s worked for you?

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