“Managing Up” versus Effective Communication: Is There an Actual Difference?

“Managing up.”

It’s a phrase that first crept into my personal consciousness sometime in the early 2000s, during the dot-com boom, if I recall correctly, and it initially left me baffled. Hey, wait a minute. Managing only goes in one direction…and up ain’t it.

And then, suddenly, it was everywhere, and the more I read about the concept, the more confused I got about why it was suddenly such a big deal.

Because from everything I read, it seemed that “managing up” was just really shorthand for getting to know your boss and his or her communication preferences and work style, anticipating his or her needs, anticipating or asking what needs to be done (then doing it), aligning work goals with the boss’ goals, keeping him or her apprised of the status of your work and projects, and so on.

You know, doing a job well.

At which point I thought, “Oh. OK. Managing up is just…you know, working well with others. Only with a cool new catchphrase attached to it.”

Employee Engagement Managing In All Directions

But it couldn’t really be that simple…could it?

It’s an interesting theoretical question, really. What’s the qualitative difference between “managing up” and communicating well in any direction? Why all the talk in HR and career development spaces about “managing up,” but not “managing across” or “managing down” or even just plain “effective workplace communications”?leadership training listening active skills

From a statistical perspective, it makes sense that advice about career communication would be aimed at those in the earliest stages of their working lives, so perhaps that accounts for the sheer volume of ink spilled on “managing up.” But on the other hand, it’s a well-known phenomenon: Managers don’t become good communicators the moment they get that big corner office.

In 2015, the Gallup organization polled more than 7,200 working adults and found that managers account for roughly 70% of variance in employee engagement scores, at minimum, and that half of those surveyed had left a job to get away from a manager at some point in their working lives.

If “managing up” were the silver bullet it’s cracked up to be, all of those employees should have been (hypothetically, at least) been able to show up to the regularly scheduled meetings with their bosses they’d taken the initiative to request, at a time they’d concluded through careful study the boss would be most receptive, with a carefully outlined agenda they’d taken the initiative to put together, armed with up-to-the-minute status reports on all their current projects, and ideas on how they could add even more value and help to contribute to the boss’ accomplishments and goals for the quarter…and they’d have been rewarded with praise, a raise, and warm fuzzies for days.

Yet we all know that isn’t how things always work out.

Gallup, in fact, estimates that a significant majority of employees (68.5 percent) are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. (There are theories too numerous to start to list here about why that is, but Gallup’s own analysis traces the problem, at its core—nearly always—back to communication problems based on a lack of mutual trust and reciprocity).

Managing Everywhere: Listening and Acting According to Needs

“Managing up” is a one-way model in which employees are held responsible for all the heavy lifting in the boss/employee relationship. That’s fundamentally why it falls short. It proactively places the blame and the burden for troubled workplace relationships on the shoulders of direct reports and absolves leaders of responsibility for their own blind spots, shortcomings, and areas of potential improvement.

Human relationships are by their nature bidirectional. And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with all the tactical advice in articles about “managing up,” placing the  onus for workplace relationship and communication development the people with the least amount of power in a relationship is questionable.

Leader Effectiveness Training helps to reduce conflicts and communication problems between managers and employees by providing a clear, simple, effective, common set of vocabulary and tools for both employees and their managers to deal with conflicts and areas of difficulty in communication from day one. It creates opportunities for constructive problem-solving rather than encouraging subtle workarounds. It encourages direct, honest, heart-to-heart communication between employees and leaders rather than suggesting bosses are inscrutable mysteries who need to be “figured out” and “analyzed” and “managed” through careful behind-the-scenes planning (or even—yikes—manipulation).

And the best part of L.E.T. is that it doesn’t just work when it’s aimed up. The skills learned in L.E.T. work sideways. They work down. They work diagonally. They work in squiggly lines. They work in every direction, because they’re healthy, effective communication skills, and once they’re internalized and put into everyday practice, they create a more productive, emotionally rewarding environment for everyday interactions, whether those are between a leader and his or her employees, among employees themselves, or even among peers in the C-Suite.

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