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The perils of “going under” your manager’s head

5 min read


Most of us know what it means to “go over your manager’s head.” That’s when you’re faced with a situation that you can’t seem to get resolved by working with your immediate boss. Or perhaps you’ve come up with an innovative idea that your boss won’t support. So, you decide to march up one rung in the management hierarchy and take up it up with your boss’s boss.

Yes, companies like to say that they have an “open door policy,” but in reality, going up the ladder is a risky move. No manager likes it when you go over their head, and they’ll probably hold a grudge for it. There’s also a good chance that when push comes to shove, your boss’ boss is going to side with your boss, not you. Worst case, you’ll leave both of them with the perception that you’re a whiner and trouble-maker. At a minimum, you’ll be seen as someone who doesn’t understand or respect organizational politics and protocol.

While the perils of “going over someone’s head” is a well-known concept, what about the perils of “going under a manager’s head”?

As far as I know, no one has ever used the phrase (nothing found via a quick Google search). But I can assure you, this management phenomenon is very real. I’ve seen and heard it play out in small, owner-led companies and big Fortune 500 companies.

Here’s what it looks like (true story, names changed to protect the innocent):

Manager Charlie is a regional sales manager, with six district managers reporting to him. Charlie likes to get out in the field and “manage by walking around,” making frequent unannounced visits to each of his district offices and having informal conversations with the sales reps.

Charlie will ask the reps how things are going, and if they bring up a problem or opportunity, he’ll quick to take action. He’ll make a list, and at the end of the day, start firing off e-mails.

The sales reps love Charlie! He cares about them, listens to their concerns or ideas, and has the clout to make things happen.

So what’s wrong with this scenario? Nothing, unless you happen be one of the poor district sales managers reporting to Charlie.

Let’s hear it straight from Lisa, one of Charlie’s district managers:

“Working for Charlie is challenging. He used to be a great district manager, but since he was promoted to regional manager, he can’t seem to let go of being a district manager. He loves managing sales reps, and he’s good at it, but he can’t manage managers. I dread his visits! He comes into my office like a bull in a china shop, and without even consulting me first, runs around making promises to my sales reps and everyone else who brings their problem to him. He’s like Santa Claus! The problem is, he’s only hearing one side of the story, and he doesn’t have all of the facts. I may have already denied a sales rep’s request for a very good reason, and then he comes around and makes me look like the bad manager. He undermines my credibility — the reps know that if I say no, all they have to do is wait for Charlie to come around, and he’ll grant their wish.

I’ve had it! If I get promoted, I’ll never to this to my managers. They next job offer I get, I’m out of here!”

Charlie, like many mid-managers, hasn’t been able to make the transition from managing individuals to managing managers. He sees his job as nothing but a district sales manager times six. While he’s spending time meeting with sales reps, he’s not only undermining his managers’ authority, he’s also not doing the kind of strategic things his boss expects from someone at his level.

Does this mean a manager can’t talk with anyone in their organizations other than their direct reports? Of course not. By all means, get out of your office and spend time in the field, asking questions and listening to those on the front lines and on the shop floor. Just don’t make promises without consulting with your management team. Ask them if they have spoken to their own boss, and if not, encourage them to do so. Make a note, and if it’s OK with the person, let them know you’ll be reviewing their concern or idea with their boss as well.

Take your list to your management team and discuss with them. Once you have all of the facts, let the person’s manager be the one to follow-up. Then, follow up with the manager to make sure that they have followed up. You could even check with the employee on your next visit to verify. If they have not, then you’ve got an opportunity to coach, or to find another manager.

As a manager of managers, your responsibility is to lead your organization and your managers, through strategy, vision, resource allocation and measurement. You need to groom and hire great managers, then let them lead their own people.

Don’t fall into the trap of “going under their heads.”

Dan McCarthy is the director of Executive Development Programs at the University of New Hampshire. He writes the award-winning leadership-development blog Great Leadership and is consistently ranked as one of the top digital influencers in leadership and talent management. He’s a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. E-mail McCarthy.