Why I dislike the term “managing up”

Published by Peter on

A friend of mine who used to be a competitive ballroom dancer introduced me to the term back leading recently.

Back in college, I was a pretty slick dancer myself. I took one semester of a ballroom dance P.E. class at UC Berkeley, and the teacher selected me to cha-cha with the TA at the end-of-term public performance. The two of us were en fuego 🔥, as they say.

That was the apex of my dance career. The nadir was the first dance at my wedding a couple years later. Not because we danced poorly, but because the DJ played the wrong song. It’s not a bad song, just a bit maudlin and slow. I was too polite to have him change it with everyone watching.

1990. So young. So much hair.

Back-leading in dance is when the partner being led resists or guides the partner who is leading. To the leader, it’s an unexpected role reversal.

As the linked article points out, there could be several reasons the partner is back-leading, and they’re not all intentional.

The post goes on to advise the leading partner of the many productive ways they can respond to back-leading in the moment.

In business, the term we have for back-leading is managing up. A Google search on that term yields 1.6 billion results.

What is managing up, and how can you recognize it?

Managing up is when an employee proactively takes steps to manage or influence their boss in order to improve things—workplace culture, team effectiveness, operational efficiency, communication, whatever.

For the manager, it can feel like an unexpected and unwelcome role reversal.

By the way, managing up is not quiet quitting, or refusal to work, or conflict with malicious intent. If you’re in a position where you feel those are necessary, then your best move is probably to leave. (Been there, done that.)

Nearly every employee I’ve ever coached (or managed) has, at one point, felt the need to manage up. Managing up can take many forms:

  • Proactively scheduling one-on-one meetings with the boss
  • Suggesting different ways of approaching a problem or task
  • Having colleagues gently intercede
  • Presenting data that was not asked for
  • Nudging team discussions in a certain direction
  • Asking the boss to check something with their boss
  • Explicitly stating what the boss needs to do, and why

These are just many ways in which employees manage up. Some employees are so sophisticated, subtle, and artistic in how they do it that the manager never even realizes what’s going on.

At this point you may be thinking, “Isn’t this just being manipulative?”

Then you might add, “Being manipulative is bad. I don’t want manipulative employees.”

How to respond when your employees are managing up

One of the most frustrating things I’ve found as a leadership coach is when a manager tells me their employees need coaching, because in most cases, it’s the manager who needs a coach.

The dance article about back-leading never mentions the word ego. Not once.

But I’m going to mention it.

Dance is a partnership with different roles. Both partners need to be focused on the end product of their partnership. If they power-trip then they may actually-trip. The whole thing goes to hell.

In the workplace, if you’re too into your own ego as a manager, you may mistake your employees’ attempts to manage up as being manipulative, or, worse: resisting your authority.

Many managers get frustrated and begin to label their employees with terms like reluctant, resistant, not a team player, problem, troublemaker.

This is because they see the workplace through the language of the org chart.

Managers are above employees in the org chart. They oversee. They supervise. The org chart shows who is superior and who is subordinate.

Superiors boss people around. Subordinates do what they’re told.

This guy probably thinks he needs a bigger bullhorn.
Stock photo by a_medvedkov via Envato Elements

Bosses who are enamored of their own power and title, and who get too wrapped up in the org chart, likely hate the term managing up even more than I do… but for a very different reason.

To them, managing up is going against the natural order. It’s trying to make water run uphill. It’s usurping authority.

To me, the term reinforces the org chart entrenchment. It’s a term of authority, not a term of teamwork.

Terms of teamwork put the focus on the team, the outcome, and roles.

Back-leading reinforces the idea that leadership is not tied to the org chart. While it does reflect the physical position and motion of the dancer in the follower role, it acknowledges that both partners in the dance have a say in how the dance goes, and both can affect the outcome.

Imagine a time when one of your employees seemed resistant, or kept trying to redirect the work you assigned them or change your decision on something.

Now think of them as attempting to back-lead rather than as a bad employee.

That simple shift in your own perception of the situation might open your mind to better methods, improved efficiencies, reduced conflicts, and better outcomes.

And, you’ll probably learn something and become a better leader in the process.

This doesn’t work 100% of the time, of course. I’ve had moments where I had to assert authority.

And if you are generally open to input and back-leading, those moments when you have to assert authority will be much less difficult and much more accepted by your teams.

Drop me a line to learn more or to talk about how I can help you and your team be more effective.


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