The art of managing-up

‘Managing-up’ is one of those horrible phrases that sounds as though it has been taken straight from the pages of a terrible business-management book. In many ways it actually sounds like a bit of an oxymoron - traditionally, most people expect the direction of management to flow in one direction. We expect to be managed by those who are senior to us, not for us to have to manage them! So what do we even mean by ‘managing-up’? defines it simply as, ‘building a successful working relationship with a superior, manager, or employer’[1] When thought of in these terms it doesn’t seem quite such a strange notion, and it’s something most of us do on a day to day basis, whether consciously or subconsciously.

As a middle leader the relationship you have with your line manager or head teacher is a critical one, and it can often be a determining factor in how much you enjoy and feel satisfied in your role.

Strong relationships between middle leaders and senior leaders are also a common characteristic of highly functioning schools. Clear and open lines of communication, coupled with a strong sense of trust in each other are vital if schools are to perform well.

From time to time a middle leader may need to have a ‘difficult conversation’ with their line manager. It could be that you think a certain strategy isn’t working or that you don’t currently have the capacity to take on any new projects. This is when ‘managing-up’ becomes particularly tricky. The fear of inadvertently sending the wrong message or of causing offence can often put people off tackling such situations.

So what can a middle leader do when faced with such a dilemma?

  1. Pick your moment – Timing really can make a massive difference here. Think carefully about when you are going to try and speak with your line manager or head teacher. Like you, they are extremely busy people and trying to catch them as they are rushing down the corridor to deal with something else is almost certainly a bad idea. You won’t get their full attention and they are unlikely to be receptive to your message. Instead, ask if you can arrange a specific time when they are free to talk. This way you maximise your chances of getting a positive reaction. Even if this means waiting a few days and booking an appointment through the office in the case of the Head, it is undoubtedly worth doing.
  2. De-personalise your message – Just as when working with colleagues in your own team, it is always advisable to try to de-personalise the message. You don’t want them to think that this is about them personally or their leadership skills, it’s about a specific issue that you would like to try to solve / improve etc. With this in mind, it’s a good idea to try to avoid ‘you’ statements and focus instead on the specific issue at hand.
  3. Offer solutions, don’t just bring problems – We all know that there is nothing worse than being presented with a list of problems or complaints, however justified they might be. Instead, try to come up with some possible solutions in advance that you can offer during the meeting. This will allow you to demonstrate that you are a positive, solution-focused professional and interested in getting things right for the children / school. It also allows you to offer different approaches without necessarily disagreeing with the overall principle of an idea.
  4. Ask them to prioritise – Very often, ‘managing up’ issues relate to workload. You simply have too much on your plate and don’t have the capacity to take on another project that you are being given. In this situation it is important you are honest about why you can’t take on any more and share the list of things you are currently working on. It is not unreasonable for you to politely ask them whether there are any projects you can drop or put on the back-burner to allow you to take on this new task. It is hard for your manager to know whether or not you have capacity, so an honest conversation here is important.
  5. Don’t blame others – Many of us will have been guilty of playing the ‘it’s not me, it’s them card’. This is when you suggest that you are simply the messenger, relaying other peoples’ concerns. This is an ill-advised approach and makes it very difficult for you if the person you are speaking with dismisses the concerns you present. If you think there is an issue that needs discussing, it is important that you ‘own it’.


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