George is stuck between a rock and a hard place. About a year ago, he came out of retirement to work as a consultant for a large hotel complex in my town. He was brought in to rescue the project after the city had rejected the plans a half-dozen times. The developer thought, correctly, that George’s connections with the city would help get things moving again. After getting into the details, George realized the problem wasn’t with the city. The plans were full of mistakes.
He worked like crazy for months, reviewing and revising the plans and generating clever solutions where resolutions didn’t seem possible. He rescued the project, and so he should be on easy street now. But the project manager never gave George credit for all his good work. Worse, he took credit for it himself, and implied to the developer that George had been all but useless. That pisses George off.
George’s wife tells him, “Stop trying to be a hero. Just do the work, take the money, and forget about that jerk.”
On the surface, that sounds like good advice. But it’s not. As a consultant, George’s value to the business is demonstrated by all the problems he’s solved, the time he’s saved, and the reduction in spending he’s achieved. (Several million dollars and counting.)
If the developer doesn’t understand this – if he really believes the project manager solved those problems – there’s a good chance he won’t ask George to consult on his next job. That will be bad for George. But it will also be bad for the developer because he’ll be wasting money on mistakes that George could have prevented.
Watch Out for Jerks That Are Good at Managing Up
George is frustrated. “The man has no idea what he’s doing,” he told me. “He gives bad directions. And when things go wrong because of those bad directions, he blames someone else. He has absolutely no management skills.”
“Actually,” I said, “there is one management skill that he’s very good at. Managing up.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s terrible at managing down… managing the people below him, the people that are doing the work,” I said. “But from what you’ve said, it sounds like he’s great at managing up, managing the expectations and satisfaction of his boss.”
You might wonder how the project manager’s boss could know so little about George’s contributions. He’s the person on top. He’s paying for everything. Heck, he hired George! How could he believe the BS that his project manager is feeding him?
I have an insight because I’ve been in his position many times in my business career. And there were times when I was blind to what went on beneath me – when I let a supervisor, manager, or CEO deceive me about what was going on in the organization.
This always happened when there were two situations in place:
* I didn’t have enough time to pay serious attention to the business.
* I had someone running the business that I trusted completely.
Because I had so little time, I was more than happy to get all my input from the person that I trusted completely. We would meet once or twice a month for 30 to 60 minutes. I’d look over reports designed specifically for me. I’d ask a few questions. I’d get a few encouraging answers. And then we’d make an appointment to meet up again.
When those businesses went into decline, I never changed my approach. I asked questions and got answers. The problems were always caused by external factors. Not only did the managers present themselves as blameless, they let me know that the only chance of recovering was to continue to support them.
I can think of three perfectly good multimillion-dollar businesses that I had to close because I failed to recognize what was going on: I was being managed.
Here’s something you should know: Upward managers don’t care about the health or long-term profitability of your business. What they care about is that it does well enough to pay the bills and take care of their personal financial aspirations. So when things start to go bad, they don’t feel the need to sound the alarm. They will do what they can to bandage the wounds. But if the patient looks terminal, they’ll quietly start shopping for another job while they continue to tell you that the patient is just about to turn the corner.
And here’s another thing you should know: The upward managers I worked with were very smart, very good at manufacturing specious information, and very adept at manipulating my emotions.
Looking back, I can see three reasons I let this happen.
- Hubris. I prided myself on believing that I was too smart to be fooled by “facts” or manipulated by flattery and false projections.
- Laziness. Because I was busy with so many other things, I was unwilling to spend just a few more hours per week looking deeper into the numbers and having conversations with other employees.
- Fear of failure. Beneath everything – the pride and the laziness – I think I had a fear of failure. On the surface of my mind, I was accepting the BS I was being handed. But deep down, I always knew that there were problems, even before the businesses went into decline, I knew it. But I did nothing about it and continued to rely on the upward managers because I was afraid I could not solve those problems.
I don’t know the developer that hired George so I can’t know for certain why he’s allowing his project manager to be his sole source of information. But given the fact that he hired George, I can think of only one reason he wouldn’t want to hear from George: He’s fallen into the trap I fell into. He doesn’t really want to know what’s going on. He wants to trust one person. He wants to keep things safe and simple.
Upward managers are bad for the people that work for them. They are bad for the people they manage (their bosses). And they are ultimately very bad for business.
If your boss isn’t giving you credit for your contributions to the success of the business, think seriously about finding someone else to work for. If you have heard “managing up” rumors about someone working for you, have a serious talk with him. You may discover, as I did, that you have been shirking your primary responsibility… making sure the business is being run the way you want it run.