Managing up and down

By Legal Eagle

A friend of mine was telling me about his problems at work. “The problem is,” he sighed, “my immediate boss is very good at managing up but terrible at managing down.” This comment really struck me – I don’t think I’d ever thought about it in such graphic terms before.

It has always been obvious to me that good management is all about communication. If people don’t know why they are doing a task, or don’t have any stake in the outcome, they will not proceed with the same level of enthusiasm. Recognition of good work is also essential; people who work hard for no praise or reward tend to get resentful, and not care so much. Constantly criticising a junior employee can make his or her work worse rather than than better. Any criticism has to be constructive. That doesn’t mean you have to be praised constantly: I once worked for someone who only praised sparingly, but when he did, you knew you had done a really good job, so it was doubly pleasing.

But sometimes you really wonder how people came to a position of management, and how they manage to stay there. My friend’s boss is apparently not respected by any of the junior employees. They all think he is appalling: he doesn’t communicate with his staff, and tries to shift blame onto other people when something goes wrong. He cannot communicate his requests adequately. He doesn’t plan well, and thus tasks are always urgent. He has been on numerous management courses, but to no avail. One junior staff member resigned from the section last year, and told the ultimate manager exactly what she thought of it all. The ultimate manager couldn’t see the problem with this guy. Why not? Well, he has managed her expectations very well, and ensured any mistakes look like they are the fault of others. That’s how he has managed to stay there, despite a massive staff turnover in the section. And no one has wanted to face up to the reason for the high attrition rate.

I suppose the problem is that just because you are a good lawyer, or a good architect, or a good scientist (or whatever) doesn’t mean that you are necessarily a good manager. I can only comment on law firms, but it has always seemed to me that rising up the ladder in a law firm has nothing to do with management skills at all, and everything to do with billing targets and getting in new clients. So as long as you look like you are working hard, charging like a wounded bull and still keeping the clients happy, it doesn’t matter whether you treat your junior employees appallingly. After all, there’s plenty more cannon fodder where they came from…

Except that it costs a lot of money to train new people up and to wait until they become familiar with a firm’s systems. It just seems immensely wasteful; but I suppose firms reason that it’s cheaper to lose a constant stream of junior employees rather than get a partner’s nose out of joint by suggesting he or she should do something differently. What if the firm loses a major client because the partner then moves elsewhere?

Still, I tend to think that someone’s performance should not just be judged on reaching targets and being able to soft-soap the ultimate boss and clients. It should also be judged on how well a person manages junior employees, because by managing junior employees badly, a manager costs the firm a lot of money. Of course, there will always have to be compromises (a manager can’t keep everyone happy) but it’s important to recognise that being a manger is not just about managing up, it’s also about managing down.


  1. Jennifer
    Posted April 14, 2007 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree, but as someone who used to work in a professional services (not law) firm, the good senior partners recognise that, and will reward accordingly.

    If a partner has appalling turnover of staff, then he or she should (usually does) have it included in their management metrics, and get counselled, and paid, accordingly.

    That said, when someone is a rainmaker, and brings in enormous clients, they tend to get forgiven an awful lot – even though that tends to be a good decision in the short term, and a shockingly bad decision in the long term.

  2. Legal Eagle
    Posted April 15, 2007 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I think it can depend on how much power the particular partner wields within the firm too, and on the culture of the firm.

    I don’t think I ever saw a partner at a law firm get sent off for counselling or management training. I guess they wouldn’t publicise it to me if they did…

    I’m sure some law firms are aware of the problem and try to deal with it, but they seem few and far between. There is an unfortunate perception that junior employees who leave must just be “wimps” who can’t take the heat in the kitchen. You think I’m kidding? After a report of young lawyers leaving firms because of overwork, another young lawyer wrote into the Australian Financial Review saying, “Perhaps the fact that these sorry souls are leaving the profession is merely an act of Darwinism at its purest; an act of self-selection that can only make the profession stronger.” Hmm. That guy is the sort who will probably make partner…I know I won’t.

  3. Anonymous
    Posted April 20, 2007 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear author of the blog,
    I am a HSC student and new to this site. This is a request to quote this blog entry for a subject in the Social Sciences. Thank you for your time.

  4. Legal Eagle
    Posted April 20, 2007 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Dear HSC student,

    Of course you can quote my blog post in your assignment if you wish to do so.

    Kind regards,


One Trackback

  1. By Performance anxiety « The Legal Soapbox on June 12, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    […] mean? “Communicates well” with whom? Clients, co-workers or bosses? I’ve spoken before about the problem of people who are very good at managing upwards (communicating with their bosses) […]

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