Managing up: Why it’s toxic and why you shouldn’t do it?

 


Many career experts endorse “managing up” as some “winning” practice for both career stability and advancement. It has been dubbed a prominent solution for maintaining an effective and productive relationship with your supervisor. Harvard Business Review defines, “managing up as being the most effective employee you can be and creating value for your boss and your company.” Managing in a traditional sense typically involves a downward flow of communication — for example from the executive level to middle management. Organizational theory suggests that managing upward is equally as important to an individual’s career.

We all know people management is incredibly hard, and many managers today are overworked, burnout, and forced to deal with the competing demands of managing people and executing projects on very strict timelines. Managing people is grossly overwhelming, and most managers are ill-equipped to deal with the complexities of managing people, their personalities, and their varying work ethics because well, people are complex too. I can acknowledge that management is hard — but I can also recognize that having a good manager is the key difference between an empowering and toxic workplace Most importantly — we have all heard the popular phrase — “people, don’t leave jobs — they leave managers.” For this reason, this is why we need better managers — and not more talented employees attempting to manage their superiors.

Managing up is suggested as a strategy to utilize when dealing with supervisors who are incompetent, hands-off, indecisive, overwhelming, or someone who gives very conflicting directives. For example, having a boss who is unable to complete tasks, it is often suggested that an employee volunteer to take on some of their bosses’ workload as if said employee doesn’t have enough on their plate already. For a supervisor who gives you tasks at the very last minute without warning and expects a quick deadline — it is suggested that an employee learn to anticipate their bosses’ needs — as if said employee isn’t already experiencing a cognitive overload with remembering their own responsibilities. No matter what type of boss you have — career experts suggest that managing up is a great way to ensure your boss doesn’t completely overwhelm you — and the company’s operations aren’t impacted. This premise alone only serves to prioritize capitalism and production over an employee’s mental health. We want talented employees to put up with incompetent and disorganized managers who are incapable of managing — and we want these employees to not only be responsible for their own job duties but also overexert themselves by managing their supervisor.

I am arguing that managing up is inherently inequitable because it prioritizes the needs of one’s superior over the employee itself. Instead of acknowledging that bosses just need to be better bosses — we instead put the onus on the employee to be the savior of the company. We mask it as a practice that can make one’s work-life better if they know how to manage their boss — but we ignore the additional emotional and psychological labor an employee must take on to accomplish their duties and be the moral compass of the organization. We fail to recognize the cognitive overload it takes to anticipate your boss’s needs, remember everything they need to do, hold them accountable, and the amount of pressure one must feel to always be taking on the work of their manager. Career experts acknowledge that it is a great career practice without advocating for employees who should be making more money if they have to do the thinking and managing for their boss. It is unjust to have an employee “managing up” without manager compensation for the sake of better morale for the company. Better morale doesn’t pay the bills.

I am not arguing that employees shouldn’t work to have more effective and productive relationships with their supervisors — creating an effective relationship takes work on both ends. But this work doesn’t need to lead to an unbalanced workload, or an employee doing their boss’s job. Creating an effective relationship can be accomplished by transparency, openly sharing what you both need from each other to feel supported, and setting clear boundaries around work and life.

Managing up is inherently exploitative. We need to stop suggesting this as a way to improve job satisfaction. We need better managers — we also need more managers with less insane workloads so they can do their job of people management.

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