The Art (and Business) of Managing Up

Accentuate the positive and you’ll reap amazing business benefits. Here are some practical, powerful ways to manage up bosses, direct reports, and your entire organization.

Leaders, are you looking for a highly effective way to gain support for meeting established goals, create more autonomy within your organization, save time, and better control your personal destiny? Learn the fine art of “managing up.” That’s right. Accentuating the positive is more than fodder for classic song lyrics and self-help books—it’s brilliant business advice.

Managing up is, in essence, positioning people. It sounds quite simple and in theory it is: just work to align staff instead of dividing them. But managing up is actually a skill of some delicacy. It’s not always our first impulse. But it’s a skill that managers should focus on and hone until it becomes second nature. 

When you don’t manage up, you inadvertently contribute to the “We/They Culture.” As in: I fought hard to get you that raise, but Administration said we just don’t have the budget for it. See? We = manager and employees. They = Administration. Perhaps you’ve said something similar, “managing down,” not deliberately but subconsciously.

This is just one example of what happens when you manage down by default. But it serves to illustrate why you must make a conscious effort to manage up whenever possible. There are three major ways to do so:

Manage up your boss.
Managing up your boss positions the organization well, aligns desired behaviors, helps senior leaders be more visible, and creates an opportunity for praise. Don’t think your boss is getting overwhelmed with praise. Bosses hear what’s wrong all the time. Very rarely do they hear what’s right. Here are a few suggestions:

Write your boss a thank you note. Be specific about what you appreciate, because it will align your boss’s behavior to your own and help you control your own destiny. For example, if you say, “Debbie, I really appreciate the fact that you always make time for me because I find this to be so important,” what do you think will happen the next time you see Debbie? She will make time for you.

Give your boss information that helps him connect with staff in a sincere way. In Hardwiring Excellence, I give an example of a staff member telling him about another employee whose sister-in-law had died. This gave him the opportunity to offer the bereaved employee his condolences. Otherwise, I might never have heard about it. Then one day, someone might ask the employee, “How do you feel about Quint?” And that person might say, “Oh, he’s a machine. He has no feelings!”

Manage up your staff.
• Managing up employees is more than “a nice thing to do.” It’s a practical tool for reinforcing specific behaviors. Recognized behavior gets repeated. When all managers start managing up their direct reports on a regular basis, pretty soon you have a whole company full of people making it a point to replicate the behavior that got them recognized. The impact of that can be enormous. Here’s how:

Single out high performers for public praise. Corner your exemplary employee when he’s with a group of his peers to say thank you. Be specific, not general. Don’t just say, “Bob, you’re doing a great job.” Say, “Bob, you did a great job on that marketing report. Thanks for staying at the office so late last night to finish it up.” This reinforces Bob’s thoroughness and work ethic, but it also lets other employees in the vicinity know what kinds of behaviors get praised.

Ask your boss to recognize the high performer. You might send an e-mail to the CEO that says, “Bob Smith did an outstanding job on the marketing report. He knew we were in a crunch, so he stayed until 11:00 p.m. to finish it. If you don’t mind, please drop him a note to say thanks . . . it would mean a lot coming from you.” (Note that you’re managing up Bob and the CEO, simultaneously!)

Manage up your organization.
• People need to feel good about the company they work for. No one can achieve excellence—which means having a sense of purpose, doing worthwhile work, and making a difference—if they’re in an environment where people denigrate the company or its products. Look for every possible opportunity to manage up your organization. Here’s how:

Never down talk other departments. This is another manifestation of We/They syndrome. If you’re in marketing, don’t make disparaging remarks, even jokingly, about those short-sighted “bean counters” in accounting. Remember, you must seek to create alignment, not division. A company divided against itself cannot stand.

Promote your brand to customers, family, and friends. In my health care work, managing up hospitals to patients is a big issue. It makes sense. Saying, “We have an excellent radiology department,” or “Dr. Jones is the best cardiologist in the industry,” goes a long way toward reassuring jittery patients. But the same principle applies to any industry. And walk the walk; don’t just talk the talk. If you make Fords for a living, you don’t drive a Chevrolet.  It sends an unfavorable message.

There are plenty of opportunities to manage up. Do it when things are going well, when you have good news to share, or when you need direction on how to achieve specific goals. When you look for ways to focus on the positive, you will find them. And they will ripple outward, creating more opportunities. Ultimately, you’ll find that managing up makes you a better leader, your employees better employees, and your organization a better organization. It’s a win for everybody.

About the Author:
Quint Studer not only teaches it, he has done it. After leading organizations to breakthrough results, Quint formed Studer Group®, an outcomes firm that implements evidence-based leadership systems that help clients attain and sustain outstanding results. He was named one of the "Top 100 Most Powerful People in Healthcare" by Modern Healthcare magazine for his work on institutional healthcare improvement. Studer was named "Master of Business" by Inc. magazine. He is the author of BusinessWeek bestseller Hardwiring Excellence: Purpose, Worthwhile Work, Making a Difference; 101 Answers to Questions Leaders Ask; Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability and Wall Street Journal bestseller Results That Last: Hardwiring Behaviors That Will Take Your Company to the Top. For more information, visit
About the Book:

Straight A Leadership: Alignment, Action, Accountability (Fire Starter Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 0-9840794-1-6, $18.00) is available at bookstores nationwide, major online booksellers, or directly from the publisher by calling (866) 354-3473. Copies also can be purchased online through the Studer Group website at