The Risks and Rewards of 'Managing Up'
It's not easy being an effective leader.
And in today's workplace, managers are expected to not only be efficient in overseeing workloads and processes but also inspirational, caring and motivating.
A 2022 survey by the Conference Board found that 52% of workers believe that having an empathetic leader is more important now than it was before the pandemic. And this proportion is even higher among remote and hybrid workers.
Unfortunately, some leaders lack the skills needed to manage the workforce of the future, and this can cause a high level of distrust between employees and management. For instance, an ARRIS survey of 1,000 full-time American workers found 34% believe HR doesn't have their best interests at heart, and one-in-three aren't comfortable going to their line managers for workplace concerns.
Empowering Employees to Take Action
It's been shown that more often than not, employees quit managers, not jobs. Unfortunately for both employers and employees, quitting isn't always the best solution.
Some experts say to turn this situation around, employees should be given more control over their performance. "Employees should consider taking a more active role in their performance as soon as they begin their job or when they want to improve their skills or advance in their careers," said Ellie Borden, CEO of RawGoodies and clinical director at Mind By Design.
She says employees who wait for instructions from team leaders are missing out on the opportunity to develop skills and demonstrate their value to the company. Rather, those who take control of their performance and take on some leadership responsibilities can be expected to be recognized by others higher in the organization's leadership structure.
According to Borden, employees who succeed in demonstrating their skills and determination are more likely to be rewarded, considered for promotion or offered growth opportunities.
"All employees should look into taking a more active role in their performance, regardless of the management quality of their leaders," said Tatyana Fittipaldi, founder of Coaching Expatriates and executive coaching expert.
In fact, she says, the best leaders expect employees to take control over their performance and career. So, it doesn't matter whether the manager is a good leader; employees need to take more control early on in their careers.
Related Article: Why Leaders Need Upskilling Too
The Risk of 'Managing Up'
While it may sound logical for employees to take matters into their own hands when there is poor leadership, Borden says there are some risks to doing so.
Those who take control run the risk of vexing their manager, which in turn could make working conditions worse or turn the office into a toxic or unfair environment.
"It could be perceived by your boss that you are looking to outflank them when you are simply looking to promote yourself and building more connections to give you future opportunities," said Mandy Steinhardt, career coach and senior manager at Cisco.
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Steinhardt warns that some toxic bosses could even go to the extreme of actively sabotaging employees who show initiative — partly because a bad boss can sometimes show negative traits such as insecurity and jealousy.
Yet, she believes for many, it may be worth the risk because inaction in cases of poor leadership can also have an even bigger detrimental impact on the career and performance of the employee. Employees who don't start to take control can limit their career growth.
Related Article: Self-Leadership: Why the Best Leaders Learn to Lead Themselves First
Building a Culture of Initiative and Autonomy
As with most of these issues, the problem can often stem from a culture left unchecked.
Senior leadership teams that are aware of potential managerial issues should consider implementing programs that encourage employees to manage up. For instance, senior managers may want to take an active role in managing unfiltered feedback from employees and encouraging them to take an active part in their performance and careers.
Offering leadership training to all employees is also a great way to support workforce skills development, strengthen the culture, engage and motivate workers, as well as provide them with the tools they need to effectively manage up, should the need arise. It also serves to improve the leadership skills of your current managers.
All of these efforts not only support a positive employee experience, they also help minimize the risk of a toxic manager alienating your best talent and undercutting performance. Employees who are happy in their role and growth plan are less likely to seek employment opportunities elsewhere, Borden said, and more likely to invest in developing the skills they need to 'level up'.
Employees who are more proactive in managing their performance and career are also more likely to have better communication, problem-solving and decision-making skills, Borden said, all of which can improve a workforce's mental health, productivity and absenteeism rates.
Finally, encouraging employees to take initiatives and reclaim control of their career progression can help senior managers locate the root of the issue and determine whether there is a need to replace a manager before the situation gets out of hand and tarnishes the company's reputation.
About the Author
Kaya Ismail is a business software journalist and commentator with years of experience in the CMS industry.