Are You a Kiss Up, Kick Down Manager?

Recently, an unscrupulous management style has reemerged in conversations about government leaders. The kiss up, kick down manager is a person who lays on the flattery to endear themselves to their superiors, yet readily intimidates and undermines their subordinates.

Ask around and their two-faced reputation will emerge. Anyone their senior will see them as a thoughtful, dedicated, and charming colleague. Anyone they’ve managed will tell stories about the damage they inflict on others. They’ll have made few close allies besides their superiors or peers, plus others they’re using to climb the career ladder.

Some might try contend that government itself is a kiss up, kick down environment, and you need to behave that way if you want to be successful. That sort of capitulation only serves to reward ineffective behavior and entrench authoritarian leaders—and we wouldn’t want that.

You might recognize a few kiss up, kick down people working in government right now. Hopefully you’re not one of them. But, it can be difficult to see your own behaviors as they truly are. How can you figure out if you’re unknowingly becoming a kiss up, kick down manager?

Are you often angry at coworkers?

image of a person brandishing a pair of scissors and looking angry

Workplace disagreements shouldn’t devolve into screaming matches. Yet people come to expect overly emotional reactions from kiss up, kick down personalities. They’re the kind of managers who go on disturbing tirades, stir up infighting, demand blind loyalty, and bully to get their way.

A kiss up, kick down personality never forgives and never forgets. You’ll treat the people you manage badly. You’ll yell at them or make jokes at their expense. You’ll overuse sarcasm and issue unexpected ultimatums. You’ll sigh, slam, bang, and stomp. But, as soon as one of your superiors enters the room, you’ll pivot to all smiles. Now you’re kissing up, and everyone who works for you has seen your duplicity. Find a way to release your pent up emotions in a healthy way, and talk to a professional if your emotions are out of control.

Who do you lift up?

image of one person lifting up another person

In The Heart of Mentoring, David Stoddard wrote, “Getting the most out of life isn’t about how much you keep for yourself, but how much you pour into others.” It’s who you choose to lift up that reveals if you’re a kiss up, kick down person.

If you’re known for being dismissive of the views and needs of people below you in the hierarchy, you are complicit in bureaucracy. Instead of giving preferential treatment that reinforces inequity, use your position of power for good. Uplift others in a formal or informal way. Be their mentor, invite them to observe a senior-level meeting, ask them how you can give them your support, check in on their progress toward a goal, or let them know your door is open to them.

Do you undermine colleagues?

image of a person saying Now that I can finally understand you, I am less impressed with what you have to say.

A kiss up, kick down personality will undermine people they see as unimportant or inferior, those who threaten their power, or others simply to make themselves look better in comparison. Sabotage can be so subtle that you may not have noticed that you’ve started doing it. Watch out for these fledgling kick down behaviors: Withholding information and resources. Conveniently “forgetting” to copy someone on an important email. Rolling your eyes or shaking your head while someone else is talking. Nitpicking over minor faults during a performance review.

When things take a turn for the worse, kicking down can become malicious. Casting doubt on an idea because of who suggested it. Spreading rumors, or worse, starting them. Searching for dirt on people. Going out of your way to tell other people when a colleague makes a mistake. If you’ve betrayed your the people you manage in any of these ways, it’s time to consider whether managing people is the right role for you right now.

Do people offer you their ideas willingly?

image of a person saying You squelch me right when I'm about to soar

When your team is asked to share their ideas or feedback, do they hold back and wait for you to speak first? If so, your kick down mistreatment has probably made your colleagues feel like they can’t be honest with you. They’re intimidated, and afraid of getting on your bad side. They’ll agree with whatever you say or keep quiet, so long as it keeps them out of your crosshairs.

This lack of honesty is detrimental to government agency missions and to team success. Managers and leaders need to hear the truth, especially when it’s a hard-to-tell truth. Work on earning people’s trust so they feel confident enough to share their ideas, provide feedback, and come forward with concerns. Be calm, consistent, and considerate. Soon enough, they’ll start to recognize that you’ve given up the kiss up, kick down behavior and now value what everyone has to offer.

Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, freelance writer, and trainer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.

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