Should Direct Reports Manage Their Leaders to Get What They Need in the Workplace?

Managing leaders is essentially when a direct report, through a positive relationship, is able to make their supervisor’s job easier. It’s all about creating value for your boss, and in return, they guide you to be the best possible employee. Many professionals endorse “managing up” as a winning exercise for professional balance and advancement. It has been dubbed a definitive answer for maintaining a powerful and effective relationship with your manager.

The Harvard Business Review defines “managing up” as “being the simplest worker you could be and developing cost on your boss and your company.” Managing in a conventional experience usually includes a downward direction of communication; for example, a directive from the executive level to rank-and-file employees. Organizational theory indicates that managing up, however, is just as vital to an individual’s career.
We all realize that trying to control people can be challenging, and lots of managers these days are overworked, burnt-out, and required to address the competing needs of dealing with humans and executing tasks on stringent timelines. Managing people can be overwhelming, and top managers are often ill-prepared to address the complexities of handling their personalities and their various views and ethics due to the fact that, well, humans are complicated. I know that managing people is complicated. However, I also understand that having an excellent supervisor is the most crucial distinction between a flourishing and toxic place of business. Most importantly, we’ve all heard the famous phrase, “People don’t quit their jobs—they quit their bosses.” This is exactly why some people want higher managers and gifted personnel to try and “manage” their superiors.
Managing up is usually recommended as an approach to make use of while handling supervisors who are incompetent, hands-off, indecisive, overwhelming, or who offer very conflicting directives. For example, if a supervisor is regularly not able to finish their duties, it’s regularly recommended that an employee should volunteer to tackle some of their bosses’ workload, as though that employee doesn’t have enough on their plate already. For a manager who gives you work at the last minute without forewarning and expects it finished on a short deadline, it’s often advised that the employee should strive to preempt their boss’s wishes, as though they aren’t already experiencing a cognitive overload with remembering their own personal responsibilities.

No matter what kind of boss you have, professional specialists propose that managing up ensures your boss doesn’t absolutely weigh you down and that the company’s operations aren’t impacted. This premise, on a basic level, serves to prioritize capitalism and productivity over a worker’s mental health. We need gifted personnel to “manage up” incompetent and disorganized managers who are incapable of dealing with their own responsibilities, and we need that person to no longer be liable for handling their personal responsibilities as well as overexerting themselves by trying to manage their manager. I would argue that managing up is inherently inequitable, as it prioritizes the wishes of one’s supervisor over the worker. Instead of acknowledging that bosses simply need to be more effective, we would rather place the onus on the worker to be the savior of the company.

We may mask it as an exercise to help one’s value be acknowledged higher up in the event that they successfully navigate a way to control their boss. However, we then dismiss the extra emotional and mental toll a worker must endure to perform their responsibilities and be the ethical compass of the organization. We fail to understand the cognitive load it takes to anticipate your boss’s whims, take on the entirety that they want you to do, keep them accountable, and handle the strain one can experience by constantly taking over the responsibilities of their supervisor.

Career specialists who assert that it’s a wonderful professional exercise without advocating for the employees—who should be making extra money in the event that they are handling and doing the work of their boss—are missing a vital part of the picture. It is unjust to have a worker managing up without due compensation solely for the sake of higher morale for the company. Better morale doesn’t pay the bills.

I am not arguing that personnel shouldn’t strive to have positive and efficient relationships with their supervisors—developing a strong working relationship takes work on both ends. But this relationship shouldn’t cause an unbalanced workload or result in a worker doing their boss’s tasks. Creating a functional relationship may be accomplished through transparency, by brazenly sharing what you each want from the relationship to feel supported, and by placing clear boundaries.

Managing up is inherently exploitative, and we want to emphasize caution against suggesting this as a means of enhancing the functionality within an organization. Instead, we want higher managers with less insane workloads—or additional managers to lighten the load—so that employees can focus on their own responsibilities.


Phidelia Johnson is a global Human Resources Practitioner with eighteen years of leadership success. With a focus on streamlining Human Resources administration, she’s well-equipped to find the right solution to a myriad of concerns. Her experience as a commercial business leader gives her a unique ability to advocate for both the employer and the employee.
In her down time, Phidelia is a master of her kitchen, creating wonderful dishes filled with passion and flavor. If she’s not cooking delicious food, she’s stretched out with a good book. She hopes to use her experience to help others, guide company leaders to best practices, and help build better professionals and stronger organizations.

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