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By Dr. Joseph Zagerman

In my previous blog, we examined the importance of communication as the essential skill project managers use in getting stuff done.  In this blog, our discussion on the role of the project manager continues with my Harrisburg University colleague, Dr. Debra Austin, PMP, as we examine the importance of managing up and managing down.

Dr. Zagerman: The concept of managing up and managing down is a critical communication skill for project managers to possess in effectively leading projects. Rona (2016) comments on this concept in the context of leadership when one has functional authority.   In managing up, it is essential to know your manager’s preferences regarding communication style, frequency, and substance.  In contrast,  managing down is best achieved by empowering team members to provide information in a way so that you can assist them in making structured decisions.  Dr. Austin, in terms of the project manager’s role, do you find it easier managing down or managing up?

Dr. Austin: As a project manager, I often find myself with many “bosses.”  Not only do I have a functional reporting relationship to my manager, but I am also accountable to my key stakeholders for each project.  The latter typically includes the sponsor, the department heads who will ultimately use the deliverable, and other executives in the organization such as the CEO and CFO. I have to be able to not only manage my project team to accomplish the project goals (managing down), but I have to be able to manage the key stakeholders and my functional manager (managing up). This could mean negotiating for my own time allocation and other key team members’ time who work on a cross-functional team, helping the sponsor and other organizational leaders make the decisions the project needs to progress, or helping them gain confidence in my ability to be successful.  I find that managing down is more straightforward than managing up because even though you don’t have functional authority over the team, you have legitimate leadership power and your position alone gives you an element of respect. Project management is mainly about communication, and you are typically given the role because you do this well. Managing down is about working with a team to motivate, support, and facilitate the work. Managing upward is a much different type of communication. It requires much more finesse and preparedness. To instill confidence and respect in your superiors about your ability to do the job, you have to communicate confidently with facts and data concisely and precisely. I also find that transparency, humility, and courage are critical. As a project manager, you will often find yourself in a place where you need to influence the decision-makers. Depending on your decision-makers, this can be done easily, or it can be very, very difficult. The real win is in helping your decision-makers believe your idea is their idea.

Dr. Zagerman:  Your project management experience and wisdom in managing up and managing down are invaluable.   As professors, you and I care about providing our learners with practical skills they can use on-the-job.  To that end, how can a project manager enhance their skills in managing up and managing down?

Dr. Austin: Practice, practice, practice. Early in my career, I found myself in situations where communication was challenging for me and knew I needed to develop my communication skills. I joined Toastmasters, where I learned to speak publicly, on the spot, about any subject. I also did professional development in this area through classes and seminars where I learned to present information, control an audience, convey a message through verbal, written, and graphical elements, negotiate, have difficult conversations, and use persuasion to reach a conclusion or outcome. Avoiding conflict is probably the single most damaging aspect of learning to communicate well. To manage up and down, you must learn to navigate difficult conversations with grace and without emotion.

Dr. Zagerman:  In your diverse work experience, what resources do you believe project managers will find helpful in enhancing their skill set in managing up and managing down?

Dr. Austin: One of the most useful things that anyone at any level can benefit from is finding a mentor that can help coach you through situations as they arise. We can always use the wise counsel of others to help guide our thinking. It is easy to get caught in the emotion of situations that can muddle our thought process. Having insight from others outside the problem can help us see a more straightforward path to communication.

I also read a lot. I find that by reading all the time, I am more open to new ideas and changing my approaches to things. A few fairly current sources of reading material I would recommend are:

Brownlee, D. (2019). The Unwritten Rules of Managing Up: Project Management Techniques from the Trenches. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Jamail, N. (2018). Serve Up, Coach Down: Mastering the Middle and Both Sides of Leadership. Weiser.

Review, H. B. (2013). HBR Guide to Managing Up and Across (Harvard Business Review Guides edition). Harvard Business Review Press.

Dr. Zagerman: I would be remiss if I did not ask you about your experience managing projects.  Please share a bit about your professional background with our blog readers? 

Dr. Austin:  I worked in corporate IT project management for over 20 years, managing a program management office and leading IT projects ranging from projects such as those lasting 6 months with a team of less than 10 people and a budget of $200k to projects lasting 2-3 years with a team of over 50 people and a budget of $10m. After that, I switched careers and moved into higher education. For the past 15 years, I’ve been leading online curriculum development, design, and implementation projects with varying degrees of scope ranging from developing a single course to the development of several programs in a 6-month timeframe.

Dr. Zagerman:  Based upon your diverse experience, what would you like to emphasize as the critical takeaways and potential next steps that a project manager should consider taking in enhancing their communication skills, precisely that of managing up and managing down?

Dr. Austin: It is essential to understand that you are always a work in progress, meaning you will always be learning and growing. If you are not learning and growing, you will quickly become closed to new ideas and stagnant in your role. Managing up and down requires a constant fluctuation in approach, style, and sensitivity due to the diverse personalities and company cultures you will find yourself in. As companies grow, innovate, and change, so must your communication style. This concept impacts project managers even more because of the lack of positional authority means that communication is the key to influencing people up and down the project chain for successful outcomes.

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