How to Answer "Are You Better at Managing Up or Managing Down?"

When it comes to tricky interview questions, “Are you better at managing up or managing down?” is right at the top of the list. That’s because people tend to hesitate while they try to figure out which answer is right. The problem is that both answers are wrong.

 To be successful in your career, you have to be able to manage both up and down effectively. Let’s take a look at how that works.

Managing down

Management has been defined as “getting things done through other people.” That’s overly simplistic, but, at its core, it’s true: You’ll only succeed as a manager if you can get your employees to work hard to accomplish your goals. Guaranteed ways to fail include:

  • Not sharing your goals and objectives
  • Giving false goals and objectives
  • Either micromanaging or abdicating responsibility altogether
  • Not providing employees with the tools, skills, and resources they need to get the job done
  • Taking all of the credit
  • Treating them so poorly that they either passively or actively undermine your efforts

Managing up

Managing up, on the other hand, is about information and persuasion. It’s about making sure your boss – and sometimes your boss’s boss – knows what’s going on. It’s also about building a consensus and support for your objectives – in other words, getting everyone to agree that you’re trying to accomplish the right thing in the right way. Failure at managing up includes:

  • Hiding things (especially failures) from your manager
  • Letting your manager be blindsided by any news (good or bad)
  • Always asking your manager to provide the solution rather than offering a solution yourself and building consensus
  • Upstaging your manager, or pointing out her mistakes in front of her peers or superiors
  • Making unilateral decisions on things that are important enough to rate a manager’s involvement

It’s pretty clear that managing up and managing down are both critical for success. So how do you answer the question? By talking about what the two things have in common: people skills. A good answer could sound something like this: “I’m good at both, because the same fundamental people skills are at work in both situations. Treat people with respect. Find out what motivates them, and provide it. Find out what demotivates or embarrasses them, and avoid it. Find out what their biggest problem is, and solve it. Listen more than you talk. Treat them how you’d like to be treated. The way in which you go about it may change depending on whether you’re managing up or down, but it still basically comes down to respect and good manners. It’s not rocket science.”

 Then, of course, you’d want to include examples of situations where you successfully managed both up and down. Talk about how you led a team through a difficult project. Describe a time where a project blew up in your face and you immediately gave your manager a heads-up. Or tell about the time when you had a great solution to a problem, but no one else thought it would work. Describe how you persuaded everyone to see it your way and to support your efforts.

 Your interviewer is asking this question to find out how you think and how you feel about other people. Do you think of their personal goals and feelings as obstacles you have to overcome? Or do you think of them as valuable tools that can help everyone involved succeed? The most successful managers know that the correct is to consider and adapt to the whole person, whether that person is above or below you in the chain of command. 


Image source: Fortune