Managing Up and Managing Down
Everyone has to manage the people you work for, and the people who work for you.
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The reality of business is that you always work for someone. You work for your boss, and your boss works for their boss, and so on. Even if you’re the CEO, and the entire company works for you, you still work for the board of directors.
Yes, it’s a bummer for me too. When I first became a CEO, I was very disappointed to find out there was no top, that everyone is both part of a team and leading a team at the same time. But, it’s the reality of business!
As a result, as a leader you need to manage your team (managing down) but also manage your relationship with your boss (managing up). These are two very different, but equally important skills.
Let’s dive into both and see how they differ…
When we think of management, we typically think of managing teams that work for us. Sometimes these teams report to us (formal leadership) and sometimes they do not (informal leadership), but in all cases you are responsible for the success of the entire team.
There are a lot of obvious parts of managing down such as setting goals and holding your team accountable. You have some choices, such as how much input your team should have into setting those goals and how tightly to hold them accountable, but most of your choices are under your control. That is the power of management.
The more interesting parts of managing down are less obvious. For example, how much should you share with your team about what is going on around them in the larger business? Many leaders “shield” their teams from the politics and chaos at the company, believing that they are improving the work experience for their teams. They create little islands of calm inside what might otherwise be a chaotic storm.
Other leaders go to great lengths to make sure their team knows what is happening around them, believing that knowing is better than ignorance. These leaders often use this knowledge to underline how important goals and accountability are on the team, considering the entire business.
Which is right? There is no “right” answer when it comes to managing teams. Shielding your team from the chaos of the company might be best, or it might mislead them into thinking the business appreciates them when it does not. Telling your team everything might be honest, or it might just stress them out unnecessarily.
Managing down is a series of small decisions and trade-offs you make to try and increase your team’s chances of success. Sometimes these decisions are made for you, sometimes they are clear but often they are murky and difficult to make. The best you can do is be thoughtful and intentional when you make these decisions.
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It sounds strange to say that you need to manage your boss, but it’s true. Managing up means that you are not just along for the ride, and you are a contributor to your relationship with your boss. A business is not the army, you are not expected to follow orders without question.
For example, let’s say you are undertaking a new project. Your boss says it needs to be done in two months, but you don’t think that is possible. Managing up means that you tell them that the project will be delayed, and giving clear reasons why. Instead of just marching towards an impossible goal, you push back and make it clear why the goal is impossible.
At the same time, there is a clear hierarchy of decision making. You might have concerns about an impossible deadline, and the higher ups might still decide to keep the deadline. The challenge of managing up is that you have responsibility but not control, so you need to get good at influencing decisions.
Influence does not mean lying, although many people do confuse the two. Influence means making compelling arguments that are clear and (hopefully) backed up by data. Since you don’t have control, you need to ensure the people who have control understand why your point of view is correct.
Managing up also means realizing that you will get overruled. You won’t always be able to influence the right decision, and sometimes you’ll end up pursuing goals you know are incorrect. If you are effective at managing up, you should be able to push for the correct decisions most of the time, but not all the time. Coming to terms with that is the hardest part of managing up.
Managing Up & Down
It’s important to remember that you are not the only one managing up and down! Your boss and your direct reports are all doing the same things, with varying degrees of intent and expertise. Some of them might be great at managing up but terrible at managing down, or vice versa. Understanding this dynamic and making it part of your regular conversations is important to build trust and real relationships.
For example, if your boss is great at managing up but terrible at managing down your work experience might be horrible but no one else would know. Likewise, if your boss is great at managing down but terrible at managing up, you can be doing great work but never get the credit. And, all along, your team is watching to see whether you are good at managing up, managing down or both!
We’re all managing in two directions at once, being honest about it is the first step towards helping each other do it more effectively.
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