Mismanaging Up

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on January 24th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Managing up. I first heard this term in about 2005. Right when I started spending more time talking with and listening to young senior managers. Like many new phrases and ideas, you hear it once and then suddenly you are hearing it all of the time. Now, I’m sick of it!  Not because I am hearing it spoken about all of the time but because it needs to be spoken about all of the time.  Why?  Because people aren’t doing their jobs! And, when I say people, I mean executive directors and boards.

Rosanne Badowski, executive assistant to Jack Welch (GE) for more than 14 years and co-author of Managing Up: How to Forge an Effective Relationship With Those Above You, defines managing up this way:  “your boss wants you to go above and beyond the tasks assigned to you so that you can enhance your manager’s work.”  To her and others, managing up is a positive; it increases your value to the organization.  The senior managers to whom I speak see it as anything but a positive;  they see it as the extra work they have to do to keep a program or organization going, the result of an irresponsible and/or incompetent boss who doesn’t do her/his job.

Originally, as I suggested above, I was hearing the term from directors of development, programs, finance, etc., who were having to do their bosses’ (executive directors’) jobs without letting their bosses know they were doing so.  They were making decisions because the boss wouldn’t; they were CMBAing—“covering my boss’ a__”—because they were being good soldiers; they were not participating in office chatter because they were being good leaders and not speaking ill of the boss; they were pulling their hair out trying to figure out ways to get their bosses to do their jobs without risking getting fired.  But they were being oppressed and destroyed by the need to manage up.   It now seems like an epidemic of bosses who don’t know how to lead or manage, who, to put it bluntly, don’t know how to do their jobs.

So the good soldiers on the next line of the organizational chart do their jobs for them, while doing their own jobs as well.   Unfortunately, they aren’t getting credit for it because too few board members, individually, and collectively, are paying attention.  They aren’t there when an executive director comes in at noon and announces to an upward managing employee, “I’m tired and leaving at 2:30” while the employee must stay and cover with the donor to whom the executive director was supposed to talk because the upward managing employee understands the potential risk of neglecting a donor.

They aren’t there when the upward managing employee asks the boss, for the fourth time, for a decision on some major piece of work and the executive director says, “I’m tired of you asking me that; just make the decision.”  And the upward managing employee does because she knows the havoc the lack of a decision is causing the other employees and, in turn, their clients.  But they are there when the upward managing employee is the one who makes all of the presentations to the board while the executive director sits and nods.  And they are there when they write the emails to the upward-managing-employee-who-is-making-2/3-of-what-the-executive-director-is-making saying what great presentations and thanks for all you do.  And they are there when their inaction supports and endorses the managing up going on in the organization and the lack of performance at the helm.  Shame on them!

Quite honestly, I don’t who offends me more:  the board that takes no action or the boss who is so inept in his role that he needs others to manage him.  There is no enhancement going on here; there is only harm being done to an organization and its mission, employees, donors, and clients.

I would, however, be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the other form of managing up that exists, and one that is equally negative and lacking in enhancement value.  That is executive directors who are managing their boards.  At least these executive directors, compared to those who are managed up, seem to have a better understand of their responsibilities and how to do them.  And, so, they understand what their boards should be doing.  Rather than teaching the boards—or exasperated by countless, fruitless efforts to teach the boards—what they should be doing, these executive directors just do it for them.  They make the decisions, they cultivate all of the donors on their own, they plan board meeting agenda, they do all the talking at the board meetings, and so forth.

Neither of these situations is healthy—not for the individuals nor for the organizations.  Unfortunately, the latter form of managing up has been around for decades.  So, sadly, too many have grown accepting of it, at best; at worst, too many have grown to expect it.  The former, however, is a relatively new phenomenon in its degree and pervasiveness.

Experience is showing me that by letting it expand, we are chasing out of the sector the bright, capable, knowledgeable future leaders.  Managing up is by no means unique to the nonprofit sector;  but the myth that for-profits are better run organizations than nonprofits is pervasive and widely, but mistakenly, believed.   Seeking a better work situation, those who should be our future leaders are running to for-profits.


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