Managing Up: A Unique Challenge When Forming a Management Team


As an owner and manager of businesses, however, I have always instructed managers with whom I worked how to interact effectively with me – how to manage me, and their relationship with me. While reviewing a business case with students recently, I realized that I had often overlooked in teaching and consulting this critical step in the development of a management team.

The case study we were investigating in class was about a supervisor preparing a budget request who insisted that he would return with “not a dollar less”. I challenged the students to tell me how this supervisor could be so confident. As they struggled with a response I suggested that it is an example of a person’s confidence in their ability to “manage up”. As I explained the elements of this skill, it was apparent that they were uncomfortable with this concept.

Managing ones relationship with their boss is not a novel concept, but it certainly has not received enough attention in business press and texts. Think about it for a moment. You’re the owner of a mid-sized and growing business. When you hire the initial members of your management team it’s because you want to be freed of some tasks so you can devote time to critical growth issues. You don’t want to spend a lot of time managing that person, you want them to act independently to achieve their objectives and to draw your attention to problems they’re having. You need them to manage you and their relationship with you as much or more than you want to have to manage them. To accomplish this, to overcome the natural reluctance to “manage up” that was detected in the classroom, you need to add the following to your management training.

Understand the boss and the company All too often the company orientation component of training includes little more than what can be found in it’s product catalog. If the objective is enabling the new manager to make effective decisions independently, they need to understand the competitive position and strategy of the company, and the goals and objectives of his boss and peers.

More than just understanding the direction of the company and the motivation of the boss, the effective manager must be kept aware of the boss’s changing priorities and pressures. If the boss’s priorities and temperament apparently change without any communicated reason, the members of the team need to have permission to ask what has changed and how to respond. Without this freedom, managers will often make mistaken assumptions about the changes.

As much as a boss needs to know the strengths and weaknesses of the managers they work with, those same managers need to know the strengths, weaknesses and blind spots of their boss so they can effectively complement them. They need to know the work and communication styles – is the boss a “listener” or a “reader”, “spontaneous” or “contemplative” – so that this interaction can be truly complementary. Managers often underestimate what their bosses need to know, and how often they need to be informed, so that delegation can be effective.

Assess yourself and the requirements of your position If you are to build an effective management team that facilitates growth, you must create an environment that encourages managers to assess their own strengths and weaknesses as well as those of others. The team only finds synergy when everyone is able to rely on, and learn from, the strengths of others. The objective is to build team members who are neither dependent on the boss’s approval, nor inclined to view the boss as a hindrance; members who value each other as an asset for what they bring to the group.

Develop and maintain a healthy working relationship Much of the training and orientation for a manager focuses on what the boss expects. But a healthy working relationship is about mutual expectations. It should include the freedom of the manager to have expectations of the boss. As always these expectations should be communicated, specific, observable, measurable, and attainable or controllable. With such clear and congruent goals as the basis of a two-way relationship, trust, the glue that binds all business transactions, will bond the management team into a strong unit. About the author: Ken Atwell is an Assistant Professor of Business at COCC and principal in Venture Consulting

Note to readers: This article is based on a past COCC workshop for business owners and John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really D A Harvard Business Review Book by John P. Kotter, 1999, currently available at Barnes and Nobel. Please e-mail the article’s author at if you would like to have a workshop presented on this topic. With enough response the Business Administration Department will seek to accommodate your interest.


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