Managing down and sideways

When our capabilities are a good match to our current job, we feel confident and competent. We're in a great place to manage down and sideways. We relate effectively to subordinates and colleagues. It's easy to take an interest in their interests and earn their respect in the process. We learn a lot by listening to their concerns, issues and problems. We see ways to cultivate their strengths and hidden talents. We'll also discover some of their limitations and need to rely on others. We discover how well it works to disrupt any tendency to power-trip, bully or intimidate subordinates. The practice gained in egalitarian transactions works equally well with colleagues (managing sideways).

Hopefully we're also experiencing higher ups and colleagues who also manage down effectively. We are then getting listened to extensively and understood thoroughly. Our own potentials are getting cultivated by their mentoring and coaching us. Our mentors must be in an equally great place of feeling confident and competent. They have not been promoted beyond the limits of their competencies. They earn our respect and inspire us to advance ourselves by their worthy examples.

When an entire enterprise runs on managing down and sideways, it becomes sustainable. Potentially debilitating problems get nipped in the bud or prevented from occurring at all. Rather than indulging in promoting people to their level of incompetency, there is no shame in getting demoted back into positions of feeling competent and confident. The promotion reveals that the job is not as easy as capable individuals make it appear. The loss of the necessary confidence to manage down and sideways becomes too great a sacrifice. The temptation to exceed one's abilities in exchange for excess compensation appears toxic. The return to a prior position gets widely regarded as progress a sign of increased confidence and a move in the right direction.

Unsustainable enterprises do none of this. They undermine their chances of thriving and surviving by managing up exclusively. The enterprises eviscerate all their essential mentoring and coaching. Few are feeling competent and confident to manage down and sideways effectively. These enterprises self-destruct by fostering a staggering number of problems:

  • Higher ups seem profoundly insecure in positions they perform poorly and fail to improve at with practice. They cover up their insecurities with bravado and attacks on others. They want others to tell them only what they want to hear and shoot the messengers who do otherwise. They get kept in the dark as a result and given the silent treatment whenever upsetting topics arise. 
  • Those who manage up successfully lose their bearings. They align their loyalties with incompetent higher-ups. They assume the critics of top management are envious malcontents who may become saboteurs and traitors. They have no tolerance for discussions of problems, changes and opportunities which call for considerable competence. They become addicted to their promotions, perks and inclusion in elite activities. They destroy their better judgement, creativity and intrinsic reward schema in the process of "kissing up". Facing a demotion could only be a devastating loss that would call for some destructive revenge.
  • Those who get labeled as enemies of the entourage at the top manage down without support from above. They create a chasm between the formal and informal leadership. The two sides of the divided enterprise cannot align on any change in structure, policy or strategy.  Sustaining innovations become impossible. Getting close to the customers, market or internal talent appears traitorous to Club Clueless up above. Those that leave look like heroes while those left behind lose their self esteem and self respect.

This large array of problems does not need to be solved within sustainable enterprises. The problems do not arise when managing down and sideways become pervasive. The critical mass of feeling competent and confident creates a culture that handles internal and external challenges superbly.

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