Career Conversations: Managing Up as a Positive, Collaborative Approach

Elizabeth Leonard


My boss never stays on topic in meetings. We never get things done that I need to do!” I’ve heard variations on this theme for most of my career. I’ve certainly said it many times, and I’ll bet my staff has said it about me. The skill with which you manage such supervisors can make a huge difference in how you feel about getting up in the morning.

As I started to write this column, I assumed I’d speak with many librarians who would discuss creating a productive relationship with their bosses. I reached out to librarians on social media and asked them what they thought about managing their managers, or “managing up.” What were their experiences, good or bad? I was surprised to find that (a) many people didn’t want to talk about it, (b) those who did talk thought I was asking how to manage my boss and cautioned me that if I got caught I’d get in trouble, and (c) many respondents were overtly hostile to having the responsibility of “managing” their bosses. Even with assurances of anonymity, I struggled to find librarians to interview; several potential discussions fizzled. Most of the folks thought managing up was an onerous task that must be kept secret from one’s supervisor and was only necessary in cases where the supervisor was lacking in some fundamental organizational, communication, or supervisory skills. Others thought managing up was analogous to another “up” term: sucking up. Most of these individuals indicated that it was only the supervisor’s responsibility to ensure the supervisor and subordinate communicated well and that the subordinate received the necessary support from their manager. Those who thought managing up meant they were solely responsible, both for the relationship and for making the decisions for the supervisor, had bosses they described as reluctant, unwilling to embrace change or make decisions, and a negative drain on the resources around them. Personnel who attempted to improve situations like these developed resentment that they were the “real leaders” (without the pay) and feared for their continued employment if they were discovered to be what they perceived as manipulating.

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