Managing Upwards

by Ian Saunders

Managing upwards across the organisation

You can impact the culture and internal politics of your organisation if you want to. You require courage to challenge things that most people will not tackle, awareness to ensure that you are sensitive to the needs and aspirations of others – especially the ‘power brokers’ – and self awareness, so that you are aware of the impact that you are having on those around you.

What are my influencing skills?

It’s important to know how you tend to influence others. To learn more, look at the topic on Influencing, which is one of the most important skills involved in managing upwards.

Who are my allies?

Do you know who your allies are?

Do you know who your boss’ allies are?

If you don’t know, then you need to find out.

Spend some time noticing who your boss refers to frequently. Who do they go to see most often and who comes to see them? Which colleagues always speak highly of your boss? (And which ones appear to dislike your boss?)

Does your boss have good relationships with any particular customers or suppliers?

All the people who seem to hold your boss in high regard are worth cultivating as allies.


There is a story about two sailors who were leaving Naval College. They agreed always to speak highly of each other when they were in the company of senior officers. They reminded themselves of this agreement when they both became Admirals!

Use your allies to create alliances. Alliances often provide a positive way of creating a bigger impression than would be possible on your own. It will add positively to your impact if you can successfully build alliances and have others tell your boss of your skill and positive contribution.

As you can see, creating alliances is an important early step.

Power and politics

Do I understand the organisational politics here? You should certainly make the effort to do so. For one thing, you need to understand the ‘political’ culture in which your boss operates so that you can take this into account in your dealings with them.

How to analyse the politics

Politics are a part of life in all organisations.

  • Observe activities surrounding valued and scarce resources.
  • Uncover the motivation behind competitive activities.
  • Identify the sources of power.
  • Observe the strategies of the players.

The resulting analysis will simply be your inferences. You must not assume that you are correct – even accepting that you may be wrong might be a helpful start to acquiring a better understanding.

Practising positive politics

Successful people practise positive politics. To do this, act on some or all of the following suggestions.

  • Keep the focus on a company-enhancing agenda.

Do you understand the business strategy and the way the business really works well enough?

Ignorance can fuel conflict.

  • Welcome competing agendas and open scrutiny.

Try looking at things this way: I may have to take risks with this – and this will set the right tone.

  • Promote positive political values.

Collaboration, innovation, stewardship. Ask yourself, are these words used in this organisation? Do they mean anything here?

  • Acquire the power needed to compete.

It is vital to understand your own power and develop it.

  • Do a stakeholder analysis.

Where are people coming from? Can you make sense of their actions?

Don’t assume that your interpretation is correct and the self-fulfilling prophecy! (By assuming something is, so my actions make this become the reality)

Your aim is to get better understanding.

  • Choose viable political strategies.

You need to know how you are going to further this issue.

How is power exercised in this organisation?

To manage upwards effectively, you need to have some idea of how power is used in your organisation. Is it used helpfully or not? Sadly, power is often used in ways that hinder performance.


The ability to get a person to do something that he or she would not otherwise have done.

Research shows that negative feelings about power greatly outweigh positive ones. Why is this so?

  • When you feel in competition with someone, how do your feelings differ depending on whether you are, or are not, clear about what the shared task is?
  • The less clear we are, the more ‘power relations’ become dominant.
  • Think about what might lead to power relations being constructive or destructive?

To manage upwards effectively, you need to bear these situations in mind.

Different types of power

Power can be used constructively or destructively.

How to use power effectively

  • Recognise when you are seeking to win. Is this for your benefit or that of the business? Are you rationalising?
  • Write some notes on your sources of power, based on the four types.
  • Ask yourself where you need to focus your learning.
  • Do the same for your boss.

Some experiences

When used constructively

  • Personal power will be felt as releasing and liberating
  • Instrumental power will be felt as giving strength
  • Projected power will be felt as inspirational and visionary
  • Official power will be felt as dependable and worthy of respect.

To discover more, look at the topic on Political Intelligence.