5 Ways Managers Can Create a Leading Up Environment


Last week I wrote about the ways that followers can help their leadership in “leading up,” and provide valuable assistance to their agency. However, the reality is that some leaders make it impossible for their followers to assist. Usually this comes from self-serving leaders who want all the control, or are so afraid of someone “taking their job” that they refuse to allow participation.

Dr. David Antonioni, Professor of Management in Executive Education at the University of Wisconsin – Madison School of Business wrote a great article, “Leading Your Manager”, that appeared in the 2008 January/February edition of Industrial Management. A portion of this article gives several points to consider to ensure that you, as a leader, are creating a leading up environment.

Encourage critical thinking Clearly explain to your followers the overall strategy for completion of the organization’s mission and the rules for executing that strategy. Involve people in the process of things – often the information that the follower gleans can be more valuable than the final results. The old adage of “teach a man to fish” would be a good example here. Simply giving a man the fish is great, but the knowledge he receives from learning the process of fishing will allow him to continue to feed himself. In the same way, teaching one’s followers the process behind an action will, in the long run, be more valuable to the company than the initial final product. Followers should be involved in the analysis, both internal and external.

In the same way, teaching one’s followers the process behind an action will, in the long run, be more valuable to the company than the initial final product. Followers should be involved in the analysis, both internal and external, and can provide valuable insight and solutions. Dr. Antonioni advises that one should ask their advice on handling non-personnel items such as problems with operations, customer service issues, or process improvement. Go even one step further and let them take the lead in developing the solutions. “Outside the box” thinking is not just the responsibility of the leader, nor is it solely their job. Encouraging critical thinking also helps minimize “follower justification” when they avoid taking responsibility for addressing issues.

Open communication

Managers need to make sure that followers understand that, as demonstrated by both actions and words, that they will not kill the follower who has the courage enough to ask insightful questions and willing to ask “why?”

A young girl was helping her mother cook a roast. When the mother cut a small portion from each end of the roast, the girl was confused and asked her mother why she had done that. The mother replied that it was how her mother taught her and encouraged the daughter to call her grandmother to get the answer. The young girl did just that, and her grandmother told her that was what her mother had taught her. As luck would have it, the great-grandmother was still living, so the girl inquired of her the reason she cut off the ends of the roast before cooking. Great-grandmother simply replied, “because my pan was not big enough and it was the only pan I had.”

Without this girl asking “why,” this long-standing tradition, which was based on conditions that no longer existed, could have continued to be perpetuated and resulted in continued loss of perfectly good parts of the roast.

Give credit when credit is due

Acknowledge those who speak up and present valuable ideas. If you want to encourage and create a leading upward environment, recognize and reinforce it. Show appreciation for the work completed by the employee, let others know who came up with the idea and acknowledge them during your formal performance reviews. Dr. Antonioni also suggests that managers report in their annual reviews the extent that they have helped develop leaders and get rewarded for that!

Check your ego

Serve the organization – not yourself. Yes, it is at times hard to hear that you’re not doing the great job that you thought you were, but better to hear it in time to fix it rather than after the ship sank. Dr. Antonioni makes a great statement, “Don’t practice upward leadership because you want to be recognized and rewarded.” You want your inspiration, and that of your followers, to come from passion about improving the organization and being on the cutting edge of things – not bogged down in status quo.

Finally, set the ground rules: From my own experience I suggest you set some ground rules. There is a time and place for everything, including challenging people. I had a former boss who told me that he expected to hear both the good and the bad from me, but I needed to make sure that I did so appropriately. If I put him in an embarrassing situation he told me he would, “take me out at the knees.” This leader took time to listen and utilized input from everyone, so I learned that he was accepting of new ideas and “bad news”, but I always remembered his “rules of engagement.” Set the ground rules with your followers so that they know when to push and when to back off, or even when “today is not a good day.” If you don’t know what these are, then take some time to figure them out before you communicate them to others. This enables the best chance for success and helps you cultivate the new generation of leaders.

Chuck Bayne is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Lisa McIntyre

Great article. Thank you for sharing. As I move into the new year, I will be taking some of these points with me to grow the team.

Lisa M.