It’s no secret that employees and managers need to build great relationships and work well together to create a productive, engaging, and encouraging environment. This is also ideal for employee retention: research shows that relationships between employees and managers have a significant impact. That’s why we so often hear that employees don’t quit their job; they quit their boss. Cultivating a positive relationship is critical to employee satisfaction and retention.
It’s no surprise then, that the idea of “managing up”—when an employee develops strong relationships with higher-ups, anticipates their needs, and prioritizes meeting their expectations—can be great for employee engagement and retention. It might sound like the ideal situation. If a thriving, positive relationship is good for the employee and the manager, it has to be beneficial for the entire organization, right?
Yes, but not if it goes too far. When left unchecked, managing up can actually hurt employee morale, reduce team engagement, create discord, and ultimately, hurt the bottom line. Here’s how.
1. When managing up undermines teamwork
Trust is a key factor in any successful team. Team members need to rely on one another to do their part, deliver on commitments, and be accountable to one another. But when team members prioritize the boss’s pet project (rather than what the team needs to do), it leaves everyone else in the lurch. To the rest of the team, it can feel like the group’s success is not a mutual priority. Instead, the boss’s “favorite” has their own motivation, and the team feels abandoned, excluded, and resentful.
2. When managing up ruins reputations
We’ve all experienced situations in which one individual is playing to the boss’s attention to get special treatment or move up the ladder quickly. And it’s not always overt—sometimes it’s a matter of an employee merely doing what they think is expected. Unfortunately, this alienates other employees, creating a reputation that’s hard to overcome. In fact, “only caring what your boss thinks” is the number one way to sabotage your reputation at work. Rather than be recognized for their accomplishments, employees who manage up can get labeled as “suck-ups” or “professional climbers.” Fighting to overcome that negative reputation can, in itself, cause disengagement.
3. When managing up hurts other relationships
When an employee manages up, it can give the appearance that their supervisor favors them over others, which creates resentment and jealousy among coworkers. Other employees feel left out and unable to live up to these unfair expectations, which causes employee engagement to drop like a rock and burnout to skyrocket. Even if a manager doesn’t intentionally play favorites, the perception alone can be enough to cause other employees to lose respect for them.
How to keep managing up in check
Managing up is a valuable skill. There’s nothing wrong with employees working to satisfy and exceed the expectations of those who are in a position to help advance their careers. When one does it tactfully, it shows drive, initiative, and a desire for more challenging and rewarding work. These are all qualities that companies value in an employee.
But you also need to keep it in check, so that it doesn’t harm other relationships. Great manager/employee relationships should never come at the expense of others. In the short-term, that might earn you bonus points with your boss, but in the long run, the reputation you’ll develop will end up hurting your career
If you’re manager, you also have a responsibility to stop it from getting out of hand. This means implementing a system where employees can give 360-degree feedback about their supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Allow coworkers to rate one another on their skills and ability to collaborate and work as a team. If employees are managing up productively, then their feedback from management, peers, and subordinates will tell the same story. But if there is a mismatch between what management is saying and what their colleagues think, then there might be issues that both the employee and manager needs to address.
When an employee’s 360-degree feedback indicates they are going overboard managing up, talk to them about the impact their behavior has on team relationships and effectiveness. Make it clear that when the company makes decisions on advancements, compensation, and other rewards, they look at feedback from people across the organization, not just the manager. You need to ensure that the employee understands that it’s in their best interest to be a team player.
If you’re a manager who manages managers, discourage them from enabling employees to fall into the managing up trap. That means not giving special projects to the same employee, to ensure that everyone has an equitable opportunity.
Make no mistake: building a strong manager/employee relationship is critical, but only when it doesn’t destroy others. Building an effective team means prioritizing inclusiveness, a well-rounded perspective, and equal opportunity. Both employers and employees need to act with this goal in mind.
Carley Childress is the CEO of Macorva