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Managing Up

Dave Redekopp, Barrie Day & Claire Fraser

Life-Role Development Group Limited

In the last few years, managers in organizations have increasingly needed to become "career development practitioners," engaging employees in activities such as self-awareness, asset identification, learning and exploration. When managers have tools and strategies by which they can assist employees, the opportunity for career development is greater at work than elsewhere (including a career counsellor’s office) (Redekopp & Day, 1999). Work site career coaching, for example, can accomplish a great deal in a very short period when managers have coaching skills.

This trend toward "manager as career practitioners" has been happening as organisations continue to "flatten" and reduce the number of managers. However, fewer managers per employee is making it difficult for managers to effectively establish meaningful relationships with staff or engage in activities such as career coaching. Further, increased pressure on managers to do more with less with greater numbers of individuals reporting to them has prevented managers from taking the time to take training or otherwise learn about the development of staff.

In response to the increased pressure on managers combined with decreased resources to deal with this pressure, we developed software, Manager’s Collaborator, that helps managers troubleshoot performance problems and deal with these problems respectfully and effectively. We also began providing leadership training grounded in career development principles. This has been helpful for the managers involved, but managers across Canada have repeatedly lamented "I can’t do it all," "There’s just not enough time," and "I’m not sure I can apply these skills" when we ask them to engage in processes such as career conversations, nonjudgmental feedback or assisting with learning plans. One manager in the Financial Management Board Secretariat of the Government of the Northwest Territories, upon seeing the Manager’s Collaborator software, exclaimed "Why don’t you create a tool like this for our employees so that they can manage ‘up’ rather than always waiting for us to manage ‘down’?".

This suggestion made a considerable amount of sense, so we used the group we were teaching as an initial focus group on issues faced by employees. We very quickly discovered a host of topics with which employees experienced problems (e.g., "my manager asks for input and then doesn’t do anything with it") -;readers of Dilbert will likely not be surprised by this finding. We also found, however, that many of these issues were partially, if not entirely, within the employee’s control or "circle of influence," as Stephen Covey puts it. We therefore carried on with numerous focus groups, further refining the issues faced by employees and grouping these issues into reasonable categories. The consolidation process led to the following categories and issues:


A. My Learning and Development

A1. I’m not sure what kind of learning I need

A2. I don’t get feedback

A3. I don’t have a mentor

A4. I’m not learning because…

A5. I want to expand my role

A6. I want to take on a new role

A7. My career isn’t going anywhere

A8. I’m unhappy with my work

A9. I’m not motivated

A10. I’m not learning what I want to learn


B. My Performance, Role and Responsibilities

B1. I’m not clear what I’m supposed to do

B2. I’m not clear how well I should be doing things

B3. My manager’s arbitrary decisions make it harder to do my work

B4. I’m expected to add value but I don’t know how

B5. I want to do more, but my manager won’t let me

B6. I’m not clear how well I am doing things


C. The Atmosphere at Work

C1. I don’t trust my manager

C2. I find myself complaining a lot

C3. Everyone blames everyone else

C4. There’s a lot of gossip going around

C5. The office politics are driving me crazy

C6. We don’t have orientation procedures.


D. How I’m Managed

D1. My manager doesn’t give me any control

D2. My manager doesn’t treat me with respect

D3. I’m micro-managed/over-managed

D4. My manager doesn’t trust me

D5. My manager doesn’t appreciate me

D6. My manager brings his/her personal problems to work

D7. My manager is inconsistent

D8. I don’t understand where my manager is coming from

D9. My manager doesn’t give me enough direction

D10. My manager is very critical of me


E. Making Improvements

E1. My manager ignores my suggestions

E2. My manager asks for input, but never does anything with it

E3. My manager doesn’t allow me be innovative

These issues became the main menu for new software, Employee’s Collaborator. A sample response (A5) is reproduced below.


Career Scenarios:

You’re bored at work and you’re looking for a new challenge, a new role. You’ve achieved everything you set out to do in your current job and you’re ready to move up. You’ve watched other people at your workplace get new roles, but your role hasn’t changed. Some new jobs have been created at your work, and you want one of them. If you can picture yourself in any of those scenarios, you may be ready to broaden your horizons. In one way or another, you are looking for a new challenge, a new responsibility, or a new learning experience. You may even have your eye on a particular role. Before you make your move, there are some steps you (or you and your manager) might want to consider. In this section, you’ll find out how to give your desire for a new role some perspective. You’ll also find out about some tools and techniques (Career Coaching, Self-Portraits, Life-Role Analysis) that can help you get that new role.


Career Know-How:

So why do you feel a need to take on a new role? A good place to start is to ask yourself some or all of the following questions:

- What is missing or lacking in your current role?

- What is happening at your work that could be affecting how you feel about your current role?

- What have you learned in the last 3-6 months in your current position?

- If you have a particular new role in mind, what is the appeal of it?

- What would this new role give you that you don't have now?

The reason for asking yourself some questions is that you need to know the motivation behind your desire for a new role. If you know your motivation for change, then you can try and sculpt or find a new role to meet your specific needs. Think of your career as a creative process, a work in progress, if you like. You, and preferably your manager, can sculpt, shape and mould your career in any number of ways if you can set aside a few minutes and give some thought to it. If you have a manager that takes a real interest in your career, then she or he will likely be open to discussing potential new roles. If your manager hasn't shown this kind of interest, it might be a good time to explain your interest in acquiring a new role and would he or she (your manager) be able to coach you. If for some reason your manager isn’t a suitable coach, you could also approach a colleague or someone you know who would support you in your efforts.


Career Coaching:

A little coaching can go a long way in helping you get a new role at work. Think about using a career coach. Look for someone who is a good listener; who will provide you with feedback; who will help you develop strategies to attain that new role; who will keep your motivation going; and who will stay committed until your goal is achieved.


The coaching relationship is a series of career conversations between two people who are motivated to making a change happen (See A7/Career Conversations). It's not just a matter of someone passing information on to you. The right information has to be there, but it's equally important that a plan of action is developed. You must know the steps you are going to take to get that new role. Just as a sports coach helps an athlete plan a strategy to win, you need a strategy to get what you want.

Once you have chosen a career coach, here are some outcomes of coaching that can happen for you:

- increased self-awareness (who you are, what you can do, what you need to do)

- increased knowledge of trends and the work dynamic (i.e. what's going on in your workplace and in the world of work)

- learning strategies that will move you closer to getting that new role (i.e. the knowledge and skills to do the job)

- improved relationships inside and outside of the workplace (i.e. people that can help you get where you want to be)

- the skills to self-coach

Before you engage a potential career coach in any career conversations, take a few minutes and think about yourself. You need to have a real sense of yourself and be able to explain what you want and why. You need a self-portrait.


Your self-portrait is the sum total of your personal assets. An asset can be a personal characteristic, a belief, an attitude or a skill that you possess. Knowing your assets and how to use them can put you that much closer to what it is you want&endash;taking on a new role.

For some people, one of the easiest ways to begin filling in their self-portrait is to finish the following sentence: I am …. Describe whatever personal characteristics you have whether it is diligent, dependable or dynamic. Now describe yourself in terms of your attitudes (I like…), your values (I value…), and your beliefs (I believe that…). These three categories, of which there may be overlap, are the essence of who you are.

Moving on to the second question, what do you have to offer, think about your skills and your knowledge. Think about what you've done in your life. Think about what you can do. Start with your various work experiences and describe the skills you have acquired. If you don't have a lot of work experience, look at your volunteer experiences; what did you learn from them? What knowledge did you gain? Go through your educational experiences &emdash; each and every one of them - and describe what happened whether it was passing a course you found difficult or excelling in a course you loved.

Don’t forget about personal experiences, those activities you’ve undertaken that are also a part of who you are. The experience of, for example, learning to ski as an adult, overcoming a bad habit, learning to deal with shyness. Again, what skills did you use or learn, what knowledge or expertise did you gain? Another way of going about this process is to identify activities you do well (i.e. I can…) and then isolate the skills that you use in those activities (i.e. I have … skills).

Another area to explore for your self-portrait is your network of people. Your network is the people you know and the people they know. Your network counts among your personal assets, so think about friends and allies (I can rely on…), acquaintances (I can exchange information with), and contacts (I could contact, i.e. friends of friends who could put you in touch with someone or something you need).

The details of your self-portrait should be coming together by now. Are there gaps? What are you missing, what do you need, or need to do, to be able to take on that new role that you want? Think on this for a moment and consider the next tool.

Life-Role Analysis:

If you want to take on a new role, you need to know exactly what the role is and what the expectations are for that role. You need to make sure that the role fits your needs. Using a technique called Life-Role Analysis can help you do this. Essentially, this is a process in which you interview others to create a profile of the role being performed. Look around your worksite and observe others who are doing a role that interests you. Now think about other people who may perform roles you are interested in, but for a different employer. Your career coach could help you think of a few people who would be appropriate to interview. Make of list of four people.

Arrange to interview these four people, using the following four questions as your guide.

1. What is the goal or outcome of your role? (i.e. How do you know when you've done a good job?)

2. What is meaningful, important and/or enjoyable about your role?

3. What kinds of activities do you undertake to reach the goals or outcomes of your role?

4. What kinds of skills and knowledge do you need to be able to do your job well?

The answers to these questions should provide you with a profile of the role that the individual is performing. Knowing what he/she does, how he/she does it, why he/she do it, and the outcome of his or her work… can give you information that can help you make your own decisions and plans about taking on a new role. This is where you (and your career coach) can begin to sculpt your new role.

Take the information you gathered from doing life-role analysis and consider your self-portrait. How does what you learned fit with what you want and where you want to go with your career? Now that you’ve done a number of interviews to profile other roles, which role, if any, appeals to you most. How does it stack up against your current role? (Maybe you just need to expand your current role (See A5. I want to expand my role …).

At this point, you’re ready to develop an action plan with specific strategies that will move you closer to your goal of a new role. What do you have to do in order to take on or be chosen for that new role? Do you need to acquire new skills? Make sure that your action plan has short-term and long-term goals so that you can realize your goal sooner than later.


Career Smarts:

Now that you’ve done all this homework, make sure that you share your learning and action plan with your supervisor. Know where you want to go. If your supervisor knows your goals and sees your initiative, he or she is more likely to consider you for new employment opportunities.

A new role doesn’t necessarily mean a new job. Look around for ways of taking on a new role. For example, look for developmental assignments:

- secondment (temporary assignment to do someone else’s work)

- job rotation (an assignment to another position in the same or similar field of work in order to broaden an employee’s skills)

- cross-training (when two or more employees spend time learning each other’s job duties for their own career purposes or to fulfill an organizational need)

Another strategy that could increase your chances of getting a new role: be seen as someone who wants to learn. Sign up for appropriate in-house training courses and programs, join an association, read current books related to your work, and build relationships with people that are interested in the same work area that you are in.

Creating responses to these issues proved interesting. Whereas there is a host of models for managing "down," we found none for managing "up." Further, we found only one "down" model that might work in reverse: Dennis Kinlaw’s (1999) "pillars of commitment." Kinlaw argues that four "pillars" hold up employee commitment:

Clarity: Knowing the values, goals and operations of the organisation, and of one’s work.

Competence: Having the skills to do the work, yet not being underutilised.

Influence: Having some say over both organisational direction and one’s own work.

Appreciation: Having one’s concerns and efforts noticed and considered.

We tried flipping this model for managers around so that it would work with employees, but it did not hold together as well as we would have liked (although it has enormous applicability for employees and managers alike). We then went to an ad hoc approach to each issue, but obviously felt a need to tie everything together. Our solution was a set of guiding principles that underlie all approaches to managing "up," reproduced below from the Employee’s Collaborator:

1. Your career is your own, not anyone else's.

2. Focus on the future, not the past.

3. Starve problems, feed opportunities.

4. Put your emotional energy into what you can change; not what you can’t change.

5. Pick your battles; build your tolerance for things that really don’t matter.

6. Focus on problems and behaviour rather than on persons and personalities.

7. Be descriptive rather than judgmental whenever possible.

8. Go beyond the status quo; add value to your life and to your work.

9. Have a yearn to learn.

10. Take initiative; don't wait.

We still are working on a model or framework that will help employees conceptualize their relationship with work, co-workers and managers. In a work world in which managers are scarce, decisions have been devolved to the front line, and self-management is the expectation, employees need effective strategies for taking charge of their work environments. To be consistent, these strategies need to be ensconced within a solid framework that is simple and comprehensive.

We predict that career development professionals will increasingly be approached by working individuals for assistance with managing "up" and "around." Low unemployment rates will allow individuals to be selective about where they work and with whom. The better models and tools our field has at its disposal, the more likely we can assist individuals to use workplace events as positive career development interventions.



Kinlaw, D. (1999). Coaching for commitment: Interpersonal strategies for obtaining superior performance from individuals and teams. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

Redekopp, D.E. & Day, J.B. (1999). Supervisors and managers: The new career development practitioners? Building Tomorrow Today Proceedings, 1999. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Human Resources & Employment.


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