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Rethinking Managing Up And Down – It’s Not A One Way Street

Ever heard of “managing up?” and “managing down?”

When I first heard about it, I thought it was just a corporate strategy to get promoted, but in reality, it is one of the most IMPORTANT concepts for two groups of people in ANY organization:

  1. Managers & Leaders: Managing down will make your working life easier and surround yourself with more productive and effective team members
  2. Team Members: Managing up is one of the best ways to stand out, develop a better relationship with leadership, and maybe even get that promotion you wanted

What is Managing Up & Down?

Some may view this concept as team members working really hard to please their bosses (sucking up), but I see it as a combined effort to intentionally make each other’s lives easier. Managing up and down is about ditching traditional views of what a boss and employee relationship should look like.

Traditionally, the manager is the “all knowing” being who asks the questions and demands results. Conversely, the team member is the worker bee who makes their manager’s vision come to life – no questions asked. 

In the managing up principle, team members are engaged, proactive and respectfully challenge their leaders to problem-solve more effectively. And accordingly, leaders who manage down actively encourage team members to challenge them, provide helpful feedback, and give clear instructions to get the job done without micromanaging.

In short? Managing Up and Down about collaboration, mutual respect, and great communication to better the efficiency and increase innovation across the entire organization.

Having spent time as both manager and team member in both corporate and startup environments, I know how damaging this traditional stereotype can be for both parties. Managing up and down is all about rethinking how we visualize our work dynamics in a way that recognizes that each party can make the other’s lives easier and more productive. “Managing” is a two way street.

I want to share some actionable steps that team members and managers can consider in creating a more efficient and trusting work environment for each other. 

There are a ton of blogs about managing up and managing down that separate the tips on how to do it effectively, but I intentionally combined my points because I know how essential it is that we rethink our working relationships into a more collaborative and open framework.

5 Actionable Ways to Manage Up & Down

1. Align Team Goals With Manager Goals:

The best way to support your manager is to think like a manager – What problems are they trying to solve? What goals are they trying to achieve (both short-term and long-term? What’s in their way? 

And on the flip side of that coin, managers can more intentionally involve their team members in the big picture by not pigeonholing certain employees as involved in the “detail” and by opening everyone up to conversations about organization direction. 

It’s not you versus your manager, or you versus your employee – you’re a team. 

Also as a team member, being curious about where the organization is going can take you far. In a Mckinsey survey, just 46 percent of the bosses believed their marketers knew where the organization was going. And I believe it. Both have a part to play in taking initiative in ensuring that the essential gap between knowledge about the big picture goals is minimized.

Take Action On This:
  • Team Members: Ask questions and get curious about company direction and goals, and when you plan a task ask yourself how you can better apply it to the big picture
  • Leaders/Managers: Have regular meetings with the entire team (not a select few) about company direction and be direct (not ambiguous) about your goals

2. Be Coachable (You Too, Managers)

When managing people, or just working with people in general, one of the most refreshing traits is an openness to learn and improve. This is an important trait for a manager too, but especially if you’re new to a field or organization, it’s important to be humble and always curious to learn more. This will not only improve your relationship with each other, but also can make you feel more gratified and engaged in your work.

When I first entered the workforce I thought asking for feedback would make me seem less confident and bothersome, but in reality most managers are delighted to hear a team member is open to feedback – they see someone willing to take initiative to better themselves. In-fact, according to a Forbes study, coachability was one of the top factors in determining whether an employee was promoted or not.

Take Action On This:
  • Team Members: Don’t wait for reviews, seek feedback on your own. It’s not just about asking how you can improve, but also just simply asking feedback from subject matter experts or other colleagues is a great way to improve your work. And, when you receive critiques, resist the natural inclination to get defensive. You listen more than you speak, reflect on it, and adjust accordingly. 
  • Leaders / Managers: Encourage your team to give you feedback as well as open up two-way communications. Some even give out manager surveys.


3. Work In An Environment Where Team Members are Assigned Goals (Not Checklists) & Work Towards Those Goals Without Micromanagement

Team members should want to be the person who is given a goal and then is trusted to deliver on that goal without a lot of hand holding. It’s a win-win, because it gives team members the freedom to do their job without micromanagement (less work on both your ends). It’s all about being proactive and taking full accountability for the tasks, projects, or even teams you’re responsible for. 

As managers, it can sometimes be really hard to resist the urge to give our team members freedom to work within their expertise.  One of the best ways to avoid your fears of not micromanaging is to give clear direction and helpful feedback. Sometimes the problem could simply be the way or method you’re communicating something.

Take Action On This:
  • Team Members: Don’t just tackle the problems at hand, anticipate problems too by mapping them out in the planning process. And before you turn something in, ask yourself “What possible questions could be asked?” and then address them. Give regular updates without asking. 
  • Leaders / Managers: Ensure your team member understands the project goals and has the tools to do so. Don’t ever assume.

4. Personalise Communications

One of the best ways to support each other is to adjust your communication style to manage your colleagues’ preferences. Some people prefer What’s App to emails, others do best with morning meetings, and others prefer to meet with the camera off. The array of options to communicate with each other in the workplace is larger than ever, so it’s important to ask the right questions about communication like: 

  1. How do you prefer I reach you about x?
  2. What times are you more available to talk than others?
  3. Are you comfortable with me texting your mobile number? If so, what are the boundaries?

Knowing your preferred communication style with your boss or team member will take time, but intentionally taking the time to ask is essential.

Take Action On This:

Both Team Members & Leaders/Managers: Consider their preferred communication style when asking questions, submitting projects, and speaking outside of work hours

5. Speak Your Truth

This point is particularly around team members, but some managers as well. Traditionally the boss is the only one who gets to have ideas and critique processes, but building a culture where the whole team feels safe to speak their truth is one of the best ways a company can remain innovative. And again, this only works if there is a two-way street: The team members must feel empowered to do so.

But let’s not pretend this is only an issue to team members, I’ve had managers who have admitted that they were too hesitant to speak up to me about something I did that was a faux paux. That made me terrible! I had been doing something wrong this whole time and they didn’t tell me!?! But also, perhaps I had shown some signals that I wasn’t open to criticism, so it was important for me to reflect on that as well. 

Take Action On This:
  • Team Members: Remember that managers are just people too – you’re on a team. Criticize sensitvely (remember – communications preferences) and speak up when you see something off.
  • Leaders/Managers: You owe it to your team to let them know how you feel about something that pertains to their performance. Don’t hold it in and let it fester, speak up sensitively and be open to investing in people’s skillset to grow. It’ll create more loyalty in the long-run.

Many of these action steps and tips may sound like a no-brainer, but they actually contradict a lot of the “traditional” ways employees and managers were expected to act. 

We have spoken a lot in the past few years about how the pandemic has helped us “level the playing field” — everyone is in the same Zoom square now. And I think it’s important that we bring that same mindset to the team member / manager relationship. Of course they have different skill-sets and responsibilities but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a team. 

It’s not just the team member’s responsibility to “manage up” to make their manager’s life easier. If team members try to “manage up” to a bad manager, they’re just going to leave themselves vulnerable to a toxic, succubus of a working relationship. And at the time of the Great Resignation, it’s even more important that managers consider their responsibility in creating a culture of comfort, collaboration, and trust. Because to them it may be the “Great Resignation,” but to workers, it’s a “Great Revolution,” and those with leaders who are willing to invest in them are the ones who will manage up – and up – and up!

About the Author

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth

Sarah Bloodworth is a writer and sustainability & culture specialist located in Austin, Texas. She studied Journalism and Environmental Science At The University of Texas at Austin and partly at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She worked as a freelance writer for several years, eventually founding my own LLC where she helped mission-driven organisations understand and connect with their audiences through clear, impactful communications. She now works at Flex International, a global manufacturing partner dedicated to creating products that improve people’s lives and make the world a better place. Her specialties include writing/editing, research, customer relations, community-building, and data. The views Sarah expresses are her’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Flex.

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