Managing Up When You’re On the Bottom

If you’re looking for tips about “managing up” — that is, on how to manage the person who manages you at work — you’ll quickly find enormous wells of advice. They range in quality from the patently obvious to the uniquely insightful, with the bulk on the former end of the spectrum. But what most of the recommendations have in common, regardless of their quality, is their having been written for upwardly mobile employees, or at least for people who think of work in terms of a career.

For the vast majority of U.S. workers, however, managing up boils down to figuring out how to just make it through the day. It’s about survival under the authority of managers who don’t themselves read the management literature or think much about managing people outside of the moments when they’re actually doing it, often mindlessly. Having grown up in a working class household, I have witnessed that firsthand. But I was reminded of it recently in the classroom, where some of my immigrant students spontaneously shared their stories about what it’s like to be “managed” when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy.

One of them, whom I’ll call Lydia, cleans the cages of laboratory rodents to earn a living. She shared an anecdote about being accused by her manager of taking a break when she wasn’t supposed to be on one. For Lydia, who is learning English as a second language, a quickly delivered verbal accusation is tantamount to a shot from a stun gun. She is paralyzed by the inability to find the words to defend herself against a charge that she needs an extra moment or two to even understand — and by her own cultural expectation that when your boss yells at you, you simply listen.

In the classroom, a safe place for Lydia, she was able to make clear to me and to her classmates — in English — that she actually had a very sophisticated understanding of the dynamic that led to her being accused, wrongly, of breaking a workplace rule. For example, she knew that her boss was stressed out about inadequate staffing that day, that missing uniforms were contributing to confusion in the lab, and that a new hire had botched protocol with some of the animals that morning. The context didn’t elude her — but communication did.

Given that, Lydia’s fellow students and I helped her decide which key phrases (phrases she already knew) to use the next time she finds herself in a situation like this one: “Please give me a chance to explain”; “May we sit down to discuss this?”; and “I understand why you are angry.” I even took the opportunity to teach the class the meaning of the phrase “managing up,” an expression which the students instantly found amusing, not to mention apt.

The wisdom we were sharing was, of course, nothing new or groundbreaking by any stretch. You can find it, and much more, in classic management articles such as Harvard Business Review’s “Managing Your Boss.” Yet it was clear how none of it had previously touched the lives of my students or, if my assessment of all the stories told that evening is accurate, even the lives of the managers to whom most of the students report at their jobs.

Lydia, fortunately, had finally managed to make clear to the manager that she was not on a break, but was actually hunting down the missing uniforms for herself and the floundering new hire. But the whole episode clearly took much longer — and created far more stress — than was necessary. Time squandered, another gray hair, a dozen more lab mice not fed on schedule.

On my way home that night, I wondered to myself about the vast segments of the workforce, even in the United States, who have been completely left out of the discourse on management thinking, or who get such diluted versions of it that none of it makes a real difference day-to-day. Why are the career-minded and the upwardly mobile pretty much the only people who find themselves with de facto access to the Management Laboratory? Surely language isn’t the only barrier.

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About Steven DeMaio
Steven DeMaio teaches English and math at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Somerville Center for Adult Learning Experiences in Somerville, Massachusetts. He also works as a freelance editor and writer. This is a continuation of his blog that ran for 10 months in 2009 on HBR.org.

3 Responses to Managing Up When You’re On the Bottom

  1. Scott says:

    Steve,

    Excellent job outlining an issue that will occur more and more as our environments (both in Canada and the US) become global. Having worked in a variety of HR functions over the past 10 years, I think language barrier and the culture of the originating religion/country are the two biggest barriers to “managing up”. In quite a few countries, the concept of managing up is considered blasphemous. You’re expected to listen to your supervisors, regardless of what’s being said and how, and simply move on.

    Regarding language, I think many immigrants are overwhelmed by their new surroundings in North America. As human beings, we strive to have some sort of security and familiarity in our day (thank you Maslow!). For some, dare I say many, the day is difficult communicating in english for 8 hours. So much so that once returning home, I believe many continue to communicate in their native language and not english; to have some sense of security, not out of a disrespect for where they currently are. This creates discord when they’re faced with a situation in which they must respond or defend themselves quickly.

    To your last point, I don’t believe this is proper but I’ll go out on a limb and say it: the more someone wants to be upwardly mobile, the more effort they believe they need to put into adapting our culture and becoming fluent in our language. And for those that are originally from the US and Canada, those that are upwardly mobile put more effort into reading and understanding management. Those that are simply working to pay the bills don’t have a vested interest in learning about management and are looking forward to the 5:00 whistle.

    This opens a whole new can of worms about how we treat newcomers to the US and Canada, regardless of where their native land may be.

    Keep them coming, Steve!

  2. Fabio says:

    Steve and Scott,

    I’m a professor and was a English teacher for some time, when I was sort of freelancing around.

    This communication problem is something that I face in a regular basis with my students at college. Yes, that’s what I said, college. We speak the same Portuguese as far as I know, but we sometimes have gaps due to the differences found in our own culture.

    It’s sad to read stories such as Lydia’s. I listen to similar ones down here in Brazil from my students very often. It seems bosses around the globe aren’t much different from one another and one doesn’t have to work with HR like me and Scott to see the growth within this gap bigger and bigger and scarier than ever.

    Globalization, immigration and so forth is just part of it. Have we asked yourselves about cultural differences within a country? US, Canada and Brazil are pretty big.

    Here in Brazil we have had a strong immigration in late 1800s and early 1900s, people coming from all over the world looking for a homeland. Migration processes occur in our countries, immigration too.

    I guess communication is just the tip of the iceberg. Respecting people and letting them explain themselves is a must. So is sharing and learning. I hope managers manage to manage these 3 simple ideas.

  3. TandonS says:

    Steve,
    I think ‘managing’ seniors is an ‘approach’ and not just a language issue – There I said it. It is higher than just what is said and in what language. Everyone has their unique styles – within the same culture and language, so does that mean ‘managing’ will be an easier job? I don’t think so. It is this abstract yet definable combination of ‘personal style’, ‘approach’, ‘position’, ‘mood’, ‘time’, ‘place’, ‘importance’ among other things…
    Culture and Language barrier definitely add to the issues related to ‘managing’ people / seniors but that is a parameter in the equation – not ‘the’ equation.

    Scott,
    Please correct me if I misunderstood what you are saying, but I felt you were talking about ‘motivation’ for ‘management’ and yes that can vary (and will! Duh!) To focus on people with a different language set or culture will not be just.

    Fabio,
    I totally agree with you – to add to what you said, the best case of ‘managing’ is how back in India, people deal with the domestic aids! Different culture, same language, but the same old ‘management’!

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