What Do You Do If Your Boss Manages Straight Up?

An effective manager has to manage tasks and relationships in all directions. Even if the organizational structure is relatively flat, good managers manage up, down, and across the organization. They develop good working relationships with their own staff, their boss(es), and their peers. Most managers have difficulty finding the right balance.

So sooner or later you are going to find yourself working for a boss who focuses on managing up the chain of command and not paying much attention at all to managing relationships with peers or his own staff. If you work for a boss who manages straight up, you feel like your boss is on some other team or planet. Another dead giveaway is that the bosses who manage straight up have sore necks from looking up all the time at their bosses and looking down their noses at you.

Photo Credit: krporod via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: krporod via Compfight cc

Your strategy depends on what is driving the “managing straight up” behavior.

One possibility is that your organization is so politicized that your boss is spending fulltime protecting his own job against the constant back-stabbing up, down, and across the organization . In this case, your best bet is to learn enough about your boss’s boss and peers that you can frame your advice to your boss in terms of its impact on those other key players and the costs and benefits of these impacts to your boss. How will one strategy or another impact the next level up in the organization?  Is it going to make someone “up there” look good or bad?

Longer term, dysfunctional organizations like this tend to implode at some point, so you may want to polish up your CV or at least get yourself a “career flak jacket” by developing some supportive relationships elsewhere in the organization and outside.

Another possibility is that you have lucked into a situation where your boss understands the politics of the organization well and is trying to protect you and your staff from the “acid rain” of senior management vicissitudes and the “organizational whiplash” of new management fads. Your boss is trying to be a buffer between you and senior management so you can get some work done.

The better strategy here is for the boss to find a “number two” who can give staff the management support they need while the boss spends her energy on holding up the umbrella to ward off the “acid rain.”  In this case, the boss may have the kind of integrity that means she is not afraid of leaving the job if forced to compromise her principles.  So longer term, good managers in a highly politicized organization will tend to jump ship eventually, so the “career flak jacket” advice still stands.

A third hybrid version of the situation is where your boss is simply a natural “number two.” Your boss doesn’t have a strategic vision of his own and positions himself as a “number two” to his boss. In some circumstances, this can work well and your boss becomes a de facto chief of staff or COO to the CEO. This again means that you need to learn how to frame your advice to your boss in terms of the boss’s boss’s priorities.

In other circumstances, this works badly because your boss is simply a “pleaser.” Your boss is just an errand person, adding little value. The dead give away here is that your boss begins to mimic his boss’s behavior (and even clothing style) becoming an almost “mini” version of your boss’s boss. Try to move the “pleaser” toward the genuine “number two” role by helping the your boss frame and deliver advice with added value.

The bottom line is that no matter what is driving the managing straight up behavior, you need to develop your own independent view of the politics of the organization, so you can evaluate the risks yourself and determine how and whether you can help your boss become more effective. If that doesn’t work, then your political research should still serve you well in developing your own career flak jacket.

In my experience, all organizations have politics that need to be managed, so the sooner you get good at understanding and managing them, the better. Also in my experience, the more the mission of the organization claims to be about contributing to the greater good, the more “complicated” (and not in a good way) the organization’s political dynamics are likely to be.

Finally, you might want to be careful, if your boss tells you that “things are looking up.”  I’m just sayin’ …


Related management challenges – Dealing with the Dangers of Hub and Spoke Management.