This is the fourth and final post in this series on managing up. We started with a definition of managing up (hint: it’s not just being the bestest employee you can be, as some websites suggest) and outlined the steps you can take if your manager isn’t managing. Next, we got into the possibility of leveraging your colleagues to manage up as a united front. And in the most recent post, we discussed three specific incompetent boss profiles and how to tailor your approach for each.

In this post, let’s visit the dark side of managing up; the behaviors beyond helping your boss set you up for success that instead veer into bullying, manipulation, and insubordination.

Inappropriate Ways to Manage Your Boss

To determine what goes beyond the bounds of managing up, let’s return to the definition I gave you in the first post. Managing up is helping your boss provide you with what you need to accomplish what’s required of you.

There are two essential elements to that definition—the “helping” part. When managing up, you’re being helpful and constructive, not nasty or vindictive. Second, the “to accomplish what’s required of you” part. Managing up is about doing what your role requires, not rewriting the script or serving your own purposes.

You’re out of line if you’re doing any of the following.

Working Toward a Misaligned Goal

Managing up is often necessary when your boss doesn’t know the right goal to be working toward (or hasn’t articulated that goal in a way that allows you to get moving). In that case, asking questions to help them frame the objective is excellent.

But if your manager has defined their goals, objectives, or tactics and you just don’t like them, you don’t get to override them. If you think your boss is on the wrong track, it’s ok to ask questions, point out risks, and share your concerns, but once you’ve lost all appeals, working at cross-purposes to your manager is not managing up, it’s insubordination.

Being Mean or Condescending

Managing up is called for if your boss isn’t clear, providing the resources you require, or giving you feedback. In that case, asking for what you need is perfectly acceptable.

But if your manager has provided all they can, and you just don’t like what you’re hearing, you don’t get to belittle them. So, for example, suppose you don’t feel set up for success. In that case, it’s ok to provide feedback about how your boss’ requests are affecting you or to highlight what could go wrong if you aren’t able to secure more resources, but bad-mouthing your boss or whinging about them to other people is not managing up, it’s browbeating.

Ganging Up

Managing up is necessary if your boss leaves unclear accountabilities that make it likely your team will either step on one another’s toes or let something fall through the cracks. In that case, clarifying who owns what and how your responsibilities intersect is entirely appropriate.

But even if your manager falls short on upfront alignment, you don’t get to gang up on them. If your boss has created a tangled mess, bringing everyone together to distribute tasks and clarify accountabilities, interdependencies, and due dates is helpful. What isn’t ok is all of you choosing to ignore your boss and, instead, making up your own rules; that’s mutiny.

Making Threats and Ultimatums

Managing up is helpful if your boss has unrealistic expectations affecting your ability to succeed or harming your physical or mental health. In that case, providing feedback about the negative impact of your workload and asking for relief is fair game.

But suppose your manager doesn’t take your concerns seriously or doesn’t make any accommodations to help you. In that case, it’s wrong to threaten them or make ultimatums that you’ll leave the project in peril, write or say nasty things about them, or quit outright. That’s not managing up; that’s blackmail.

If your work is making you unwell, it’s essential to set boundaries and make choices that are healthy for you. If those choices put you at odds with your manager, seek the support of human resources or other sponsors in the organization. Making threats or ultimatums isn’t the way to go.

General Criteria for Managing Up

I use a few litmus tests to determine whether something is managing up or crosses the line into inappropriate behavior.

  1. Would you be worried if your boss’ boss knew what you were doing? If what you’re doing falls within the bounds of managing up, your boss’ boss should be okay with it.
  2. Are you making statements and demands to assert your wishes rather than using questions to understand your boss’ needs? If you’re managing up, you’re focused on what the job requires, not what you want.
  3. Are your efforts making you less stressed and better able to do your job or filling you with resentment and creating a toxic work environment? If you’re managing up, your self-talk should be getting more positive, not more negative.

Many scenarios and versions of ineffective bosses make managing up necessary and helpful. But managing up has to be beneficial to your manager, and it has to focus on achieving the goals that are important to your organization. Any behavior that crosses the line so that it’s menacing, hurtful, or condescending is not managing up. Nor is any behavior that ignores your manager’s wishes or the business’s needs.

Additional Resources

Disagree with your boss without getting fired

The first 3 things to ask when you join a new team

Simple Steps to Rehabilitate a Bad Reputation

Expert Advice: Michelle Bennett 10 Managing Up Mistakes and How to Avoid Them