Dear Deborah: I’ve just been promoted to a middle management position. I want to solidify my relationship with my director as well as my subordinates. Can you share some strategies for managing up?
First off, congratulations on your promotion! Collaboration is essential in IR so it’s important to maintain solid relationships. People that know me might find it somewhat ironic that I’m answering this question. I chuckled a bit when I was asked to talk about this topic. I’ll explain why in a bit.
For readers who do not know what “managing up” is, it’s a management technique that has been around for a few decades. Gabarro and Kotter (1980) define the process as “working with your superior to obtain the best possible results for you, your boss, and the company.” This article can be found in Harvard Business Review’s 10 Must Reads on Managing People. I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t. Gabarro and Kotter’s article, “Managing Your Boss,” describes how you can persuade your manager to make better informed decisions that benefits everyone. We are all here to support student success and institutional effectiveness. Still, a lot of people roll their eyes when they are told to “manage up” or “manage from the middle” for multiple reasons. Some see it as manipulation or apple polishing while others see it as not part of their job description. “Why should I do someone else’s job? I’m already overwhelmed!” - said every person in IR. It might sound like you have to do someone else’s job, but it’s really about taking control of your own workload. Before you do anything, you need to understand your own needs, strengths, weaknesses, and work style. In your situation, you also need to understand the needs, strengths, weaknesses, and work style of your boss - as well as your subordinates.
Part of understanding those around you is to be cognizant of possible barriers, and how managing up (down, left, right, backward, forward, etc.) might be a difficult concept to grasp in some cultures. That’s why this topic is very personal to me. Managing up is something that was originally not in my repertoire. Growing up in an Asian household, I was always taught to never question authority, to listen to elders, and to be self-effacing. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I attended a diversity conference hosted by Azusa Pacific University, that I realized I was impeding my own career development. The speaker talked about the “bamboo ceiling.” A term coined by Jane Hyun in 2005. Unlike a glass ceiling, these individuals do not see beyond what they have (Hyun, 2005). It plays on the model minority concept where Asians are seen as quiet, hard-working, non-confrontational, submissive, and high-achieving. As far as I knew, I was a good analyst. I completed the tasks that I was given and went home at the end of the day. The discussion about the bamboo ceiling was very enlightening and it was interesting to hear that only 2.3% of college and university presidents are Asian (Seltzer, 2017). From that day on, I set a new goal for myself to take charge of my future - and that involved managing up. I did not want my superiors to assume that I lacked leadership, communication skills, or the aspiration to assume a leadership position.
The main strategy to manage up and across is to open the lines of communication. As the saying goes, “communication is key.” It is important to communicate issues as well as solutions to the issues. Never make assumptions. When you have a situation, don’t look to your boss for a solution. Instead, provide a solution or two as part of the conversation. If you are overwhelmed, let your boss know and provide a solution to how you can prioritize your workload effectively. The key word is effectively. Your boss doesn’t understand how chaotic IR can be nor should they. If I surveyed every person overseeing IR and asked what IR does, I’m sure they wouldn't be able to articulate everything that we do - and we do a lot. With that said, it’s important to understand your boss’s point of view. Bosses have pressures, too.
Managing up allows you the ability to take control of what you do and how you do it. You are the expert for a reason. When someone on your campus asks “How many students do we have?” you reply with “Census? End-of-term? Unduplicated headcount for the academic year? Traditional undergraduate only? What about non-degree seeking students?” You want productive relationships with your boss and your subordinates. It allows you to focus on mutual expectations, information flow, dependability and honesty, and good use of time and resources (Gabarro and Kotter, 1980). It’s very common to hear that individuals are duplicating efforts, and that’s not the best use of anyone’s time. As IR professionals, we are here to effectively support a university’s strategic plan by helping others (our bosses) make data-informed decisions. Internal and external demands are increasing in every IR office; it’s more important than ever now to take control. Trust yourself, understand, and communicate. You got this!
- Gabarro, J.J., & Kotter, J.P. (1980). Managing Your Boss. Harvard Business Review, 58, 1.
- Hyun, J. (2005). Breaking the bamboo ceiling: Career strategies for Asians. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
- Setzler, R. (2017). The Slowly Diversifying Presidency. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/06/20/college-presidents-diversifying-slowly-and-growing-older-study-finds
Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. If you are interested in writing an eAIR article, or have an interesting topic, please contact eAIR@airweb.org. The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the authors, and not necessarily of AIR.