Managing Up™ Sucks

Being able to "manage up" is seen as a positive in many workplaces—but it's exhausting

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Everyone has played the sleight-of-hand trick called Managing Up™

I start every one of these newsletters with some cursory Google research. This time, I was confused—and slightly horrified—to find that most of the stories that popped up about Managing Up™ seemed to condone the harmful workplace practice.

If you’re not already familiar with the term, a) consider yourself lucky, and b) Managing Up™ means changing your behavior for the benefit of your boss. At best, the reasons for it can be innocuous: Maybe your boss is disorganized, and you know you can handle a task more efficiently than they can. But more often, it means that you’re forced to come up with roundabout strategies to get your manager’s attention or approval, when all you’re trying to do is get your job done. It’s a powerful acknowledgment that your boss is inadequate, and that you’ll either have to pick up their slack or that your work performance might tangibly suffer because of them. 

Initially, I assumed Managing Up™ was a well-known phenomenon, universally understood to be an annoyance—so much so that I thought adding a trademark sign to the term was funny. Instead, many of the sources I read suggested that managing up was a normal part of team dynamics. The only cautionary tales I could find warned employees not to get so close with their bosses that their coworkers would grow to resent them. Work under a leader whose capricious behavior, lack of clarity, or absence of empathy fill each day with stress and uncertainty? Just manage them in secret and treat them like “a difficult client,” as another article advises.

A caveat: Managing up is not the same as the typical back-and-forth communication that comes with working in a group. Trust that’s built laterally through a company, cooperation that radiates throughout a workplace hierarchy, is beneficial, as a report from McKinsey & Company outlines. If an employee feels empowered to make a decision within their company, and has the tools to do so, that’s one fewer thing that a leader has to worry about. If they feel like they can tell their superiors about a workflow that is detrimental to the success of the team, then the whole company benefits. 

But that’s not how it normally goes. 

The harm in managing up isn’t about people’s different modes of communication. Instead, it’s evidence that an employee cannot get approval for their ideas or answers to their questions from their superior via direct means. It’s indicative of a leader who is either too busy, too impatient, or too driven by their own vision of what is right to listen to others, or to offer them open dialogue and guidance. This might not be your boss’s fault—especially if they have an even more out-of-touch boss that they have to manage—but for employees, it’s demoralizing.

A few years ago, I worked at a cafe where we implemented a wage-transparency policy. People knew what they’d be making in three, six, 12 months, and they knew what their co-workers made as well. I thought the moral case for wage transparency was clear, but to get it approved by my boss, I had to present the idea that the new policy was good because it meant we could make financial predictions about the future of the cafe well in advance, as we knew what people’s hourly rates would be. In this example, my boss wasn’t open to the moral case. It felt like I had to trick him into even considering my point-of-view.

I’m tired of it. Even one of my favorite resources for workplace analysis, The Harvard Business Review, presented a list of reasons why your boss might need some managing up, with an unsatisfying conclusion:

To start, consider the type of manager you have. Many pose a unique set of challenges that require an equally unique set of skills to handle. Perhaps you’re dealing with:

  • A brand new boss, someone you’ve never met before.

  • A manager you don’t see face-to-face because she works in another location

  • An insecure boss (hint: it’s important to know how to tame his ego)

  • An all-knowing or indecisive boss

  • A manager who gives you conflicting messages

  • A long-winded boss

  • A hands-off boss

  • A manager who isn’t as smart as you

  • A boss that’s actually a board of directors

The article starts by acknowledging all the ways a boss can fail at their job, but then presents this as a solution:

No matter what type of manager you have, there are some skills that are universally important. For example, you need to know how to anticipate your boss’s needs — a lesson we can all learn from the best executive assistants. You need to understand what makes your boss tick (and what ticks her off) if you want to get buy-in for your ideas.

Why, in this model, does the manager get to stay static and perpetuate damaging behavior? Why is the onus always on the subordinate employee to evolve and adapt? And why are we demanding that employees clairvoyantly anticipate their boss’s needs?

It’s time that we leave these damaging and ineffective standards of communication and management behind, though it’s worth acknowledging that, again, making this change should not be the onus of a single, subordinate employee.

When navigating these difficult dynamics myself, I try to apply what I learned from teaching middle school. There, clarity is the most important value. When asking a question or making a request, don’t adorn your language. Be direct, specific, and give very simple reasons. “I’d like you to practice this algebra equation because it’ll show up on your exam” is more effective than nebulous explanations like “because math is important” or threats like “because I’ll call your parents.” Draw the shortest line between X and Y.

Honestly, it’s surprising how many lessons from the classroom can translate to talking to bosses. Still, being direct and plain-spoken is not a one-stop solution to fixing the underlying toxicity of workplaces where managing up thrives. But it’s a start—and it’s an option when your boss does something that’s the opposite of what’s good for you or good for the business.

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