Management & Organization

Middle manager: How to lead upwards

Did you know that out of all groups of employees in Denmark, the most stressed are middle managers? A study made by the organization DJØF in 2015 showed that almost 45 % of middle managers felt stressed.


And according to Annette Klausen Bengtson, who is the author of the book “Too Lead Upwards”, there’s a good reason for this. As a middle manager, you find yourself right in the middle of expectations from your employees and demands from your boss.


In this article, Klausen Bengtson tells us that there’s one crucial thing to do if you want to relieve some of the pressure. “You have to be the link between management levels and ensure that important information is accessible the most appropriate way at every level”.

In other words, you have to lead upwards.


It might sound both frightening, difficult and ill-advised to lead your boss. But only if you view leadership as execution of power. However, if you view leadership as the execution of influence, like Annette Klausen Bengtson, it makes sense.


Your most important task is to make your company successful. And this is for instance done by helping your boss. Think of “leading upwards” as your way of “making your boss good”. By keeping your boss updated on your project statuses and what’s going on among your employees, you make her capable of making better decisions in favor of you, your employees and in the end the entire company.


To lead upwards takes courage

This is not an easy task. Far from it. It can be very terrifying to approach your boss and say that you want to start leading upwards, according to Annette Klausen Bengtson in the same article.


But before you reject the thought completely think of the advantages it offers – for you as well.


When your boss is updated on your conditions she can make decisions that better suit your workday and the way you perceive reality. This means, that you will be more capable of making decisions that are aligned with what your employees want. By doing this, the pressure from above and below is relieved.


5 steps to leading upwards

Now you would probably like to know how to do it. We’ll get there in a moment but first we need to agree on what it means to lead upwards. In the article, Annette Klausen Bengtson boils it down to these four important messages:

  1. To pass along relevant input to keep your boss is informed about important issues that affect decisions
  2. To service your boss so she has the best possibilities for succeeding with implementing the strategy.
  3. To keep focus on strategy and tactics so ordinary workdays don’t drown in operation and putting out fires.
  4. To ensure that personal agendas are removed so that the wellbeing of the organization is constantly kept in focus instead.


However, in order to do this, Bengtson underlines, one of the first things you have to do is to put away your selfishness. When you lead upwards it’s no longer about you or your needs but the needs of your boss.


And this is where we get to how you do it. Anders Stahlsmith shares five steps for leading upwards that are relevant in this case. His five steps are as follows:

  1. Understand your boss. In order to help your boss it’s important that you understand her view of the world. You have to be able to move your attention from your own view to hers.
  2. Make your boss safe. You do this by preventing nervousness and informing her about your situation. Think in terms of solutions so you can solve the boss’ problems.
  3. Understand the game of power. It’s important that you understand the different games of power in your organization. Be useful to your boss without putting your own credibility on the line.
  4. Take the power. You don’t have power over your boss even though you’re leading upwards. But you have the power to achieve something with her. For instance, knowledge can grant you power to complete your decisions.
  5. Contribute to the story. When you lead upwards it’s about understanding the company’s and your boss’ tale about themselves. You have to build upon that tale so the boss is always able to recognize herself.


When leading upwards is successful

If you succeed in leading upwards there are, according to IDA, several positive results to look forward to. Because a strong relationship with your boss means that:

  • We achieve more through mutual support
  • We receive information about decisions at the top level
  • There’s progress and security when you and your boss know where you have each other
  • Good relationships help you move on in your career – while bad relationships can limit you career opportunities
  • Happiness at work grows when you have a good relationship with your leader
  • There’s more room for taking risks when you trust each other and provide space
  • You are more efficient because you work towards the same goal.