Upward Engagement: A Critical Competence When Things Get Stuck

Navigating the labyrinth structures of the corporate world can often be a daunting task. Hierarchical systems, while necessary, can sometimes restrict swift and efficient problem-solving. To conquer these challenges, a specific skill set is required, one of the most important being ‘managing up.’ This post will delve into this vital competency and provide a guide for those who frequently find themselves tangled in red tape.

Unraveling the Concept of Upward Management

‘Managing up’ or upward management is effectively influencing those superior to you within the organization’s hierarchy. This includes your immediate manager, senior management, and even board members. It’s about working harmoniously and communicating effectively with them to achieve shared objectives and navigate through organizational complexities.

Why Upward Management Matters

The power to make critical decisions in many organizations usually lies with those at the top. Therefore, communicating effectively with higher-ups is essential for smooth operations, especially when encountering roadblocks that require their backing to progress.

Upward management fosters strong relationships with superiors and encourages an open, transparent workplace culture. It provides a platform to voice concerns, offer feedback, and share innovative ideas that might go unnoticed.

Here is an example:

Once upon a time, a project manager named Sarah was leading a crucial project for her company. She realized that they were likely to miss their deadline due to unforeseen internal issues. However, she was afraid to deliver the bad news to her superiors, fearing it would reflect poorly on her capabilities. So, she kept the information to herself, hoping to fix the problems before anyone noticed. Unfortunately, the issues worsened, and the project fell behind schedule. When the senior management eventually found out, they were more disappointed about not being informed earlier than the delay itself. If Sarah had practiced upward management, she could have sought their advice or assistance earlier, potentially preventing the project’s derailment.

What to take away from this?  Managing in complex scenarios is hard.  Competent leaders know when to raise the red flag and ask for help.


Cutting Through Red Tape with Upward Management

Project management is a multifaceted discipline that involves a variety of skills, tools, and techniques. It’s about delivering value, whether it’s through the development of software or the execution of a complex project.

Here are some scenarios illustrating these principles:

  1. Maximize Your Connections: Imagine you’re a project manager tasked with coordinating a cross-functional team for a major product launch. The timeline is tight, and you need to expedite approval on various aspects of the project. You leverage your relationships with key decision-makers to fast-track approvals, ensuring the project stays on schedule.

  2. Master the Maze: As a project manager, you’re leading a team to implement a new software system across multiple departments. Your understanding of the company structure and processes allows you to anticipate potential bottlenecks and plan accordingly, avoiding delays and ensuring smooth progress.

  3. Be the Vanguard of Change: Suppose you’re in charge of a project where manual data entry is slowing down progress. Recognizing that automation could streamline this, you research potential solutions, present your findings to senior management, and successfully advocate for an automated system. This not only speeds up the project but also reduces the potential for human error.

  4. Forge Ahead with Grit and Tenacity: You’re handling a project where a vendor is providing critical services. Your boss disregards the agreed-upon contract terms, knowing the vendor has limited recourse. However, you understand the importance of maintaining good relationships with vendors for long-term success. Despite resistance from your boss, you insist on honoring the contract terms, thereby preserving the relationship with the vendor and ensuring the project’s successful completion.

Remember! successful project management requires understanding, effective communication, trust-building, proactive initiative, and a solution-oriented mindset. It also takes a backbone and grit. These strategies can help you navigate complexity and deliver successful results.



Dr. Joel Carboni

Dr. Joel Carboni is a highly respected expert in sustainable project management. He is a graduate of Ball State University and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainable Development and Environment. He has over 25 years of experience in project management, including government, finance, consulting, manufacturing, and education. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events related to project management and sustainability and has worked in more than 50 countries. In addition to serving as President Emeritus of the International Project Management Association (IPMA) in the United States and being a member of the Global advisory board, Dr. Carboni is also the founder of GPM (Green Project Management) and a visiting professor at Skema Business School. He is also the GPM representative to the United Nations Global Compact, where he was a founding signatory of the Business for Peace Initiative and the Anti-Corruption call to action and a contributor to the development of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (SDGs). Dr. Carboni is the creator of the PRiSM™ project delivery methodology and the P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management and has written training programs on Green and Sustainable Project Management that are offered in more than 145 countries through professional training providers, business associations, and universities. He is the lead author of the book "Sustainable Project Management."

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