Why I Hate The Term “Managing Up”

I’ve been thinking about how much I dislike the phrase “Managing up”. To me, the term managing up feels like a coping mechanism, a way to survive bad managers.

Why do people need to cope with bad managers? I see the problem as the power dynamic in the relationship between a manager and reports. In relationships such as friends or life partners, you start on equal footing. The in’s and out’s of the relationship is an ongoing negotiation of terms. Each person is accountable for showing up and doing the work. The work of creating meaningful dialogue, working on change, and working to make the relationship work better.

By default, relationships that have an inherent power dynamic have one voice that gets silenced. Where one person has to put in significantly more effort to make the relationship work better. It’s not usually the person with authority. The person with the power has little incentive to listen, change, and be held accountable for their contributions to building a better relationship.

When the power lies with the role of the manager, it’s the manager’s responsibility to create a psychologically safe environment. An environment that breaks down the power dynamic. Safe environments make it easy for people to talk to each other openly and meaningfully.

I think of managers and reports as roles, not as a hierarchy — each with unique areas of ownership and responsibilities to support one another.

I’ve experienced less than ideal working relationships between my reports and managers. In all these relationships, the dialogue was missing. Without it, teams work at a diminished level of effectiveness. Over time, organizations that have fostered a safe space for conversation have groups and individuals with greatly increased focus, energy, and agency.

These teams find greater satisfaction in their interactions with each other, their work, and across the organization. You find less evidence of burnout and more evidence of joy, motivation, and happiness.

So remember one of my favorite quotes the next time you feel like you have to manage up, down, or even sideways.

“A dialogue leads to connection, which leads to trust which leads to engagement.“ — Seth Godin”

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