Management & Controlling

When Managers “Kiss Up and Kick Down”

To get ahead in their careers, some managers today use questionable tactics—and companies can do something about it.

They’re sweet as pie to their bosses, but then they shout at and exploit their own employees. Some managers, particularly those in middle management, can have two faces and behave dubiously in a bid to get ahead in their careers as quickly as they can. In their latest publication, researchers from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and the Kuehne Logistics University spend time analyzing why it is that some managers “kiss up and kick down”—and what companies can do about such behavior.

Managers, particularly those in middle management, are often under a great deal of pressure. They constantly have to deliver results to get ahead and to not find themselves “stuck in the middle.” And for that reason, some employ rather self-serving tactics: While they go the extra mile for their own superiors—always with a smile, of course—they are simultaneously exploiting their own team. In doing so, their goal is to obtain the most resources possible for themselves.

From the point of view of these managers, such behavior has another advantage. Not controlling themselves in front of their own employees, and taking out their emotions on them, saves them energy—energy they can then put toward positioning themselves better among the company’s decision makers. But this strategy, which the research team has coined “Kiss-Up-Kick-Down” (KUKD), has a catch: The longer a manager tries kissing up to their superiors while kicking down their own employees, the less it works. That manager would have to jump to the next position or move companies as quickly as possible if hoping to take the next step in their career.

What can companies do to prevent such behavior?

It’s important for a company to understand the function that KUKD can fulfill for a manager. That is, many managers may think it helps them on their way as they climb the corporate ladder and that it could prove useful at companies that have an “up-or-out” culture, i.e., where those who truly put their noses to the grindstone get ahead; those who don't measure up have to go. Organizations that employ a traditional incentive system are also good breeding grounds for this type of managerial behavior, as the focus at such firms rests on the achievements of the individual and not the team. Working from home represents an additional risk factor if the company does not take explicit care to ensure that regular communication takes place across the hierarchical levels both above and below the focal managers.

To counteract such behavioral patterns, companies can take measures to ensure transparent feedback from all levels. For example, some larger corporations, such as Google, now rely on upward feedback or on manager evaluations performed by employees. And, if it comes to light that the employees have been treated inappropriately, their managers don’t receive a promotion. Another way to mitigate disrespectful behavior is to establish an independent complaints committee through which affected employees can speak with ombudspersons. The feedback of such a committee can also help companies act against unacceptable managerial behavior.

It is also important to be on the lookout for any early signs of KUKD behavior. For example, and if legally in line with local data protection laws, companies could have the language used by their managers in electronic communication automatically analyzed through the use of special software.  

Tips for practitioners
  • At your company, take note of the ways managers behave toward employees. Should they not treat them with respect, you should intervene and make a change! If you don’t, your employees will work less efficiently over time and may even resign.
  • Take a 360° approach to evaluating your managers that allows them to receive feedback from their superiors, peers, and even from their own employees.
  • Ensure regular communication across the hierarchy levels! That way, any manager who does show KUKD behaviors won’t be able to isolate their employees from other managers.
  • As a manager, you should be careful not to be unfair or disrespectful to members of your team. Although it may push your employees to work harder in the short term, acting unfairly can only go so far. Eventually, it will cause their levels of engagement to drop. Don’t exhaust your employees by overloading them with excessive demands!
Literature reference
  • Gerpott, F./Van Quaquebeke, N. (2022): Kiss-Up-Kick-Down to Get Ahead: A Resource Perspective on How, When, Why, and With Whom Middle Managers Use Ingratiatory and Exploitative Behaviors to Advance Their Careers, in: Journal of Management Studies. https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12855
Authors

Professor Fabiola H. Gerpott 

Fabiola H. Gerpott is an expert in leadership, diversity management, and organizational behavior at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management. She is committed to ensuring that diversity is valued more by both managers and employees. Her research focuses on leadership communication, diversity, and how companies can effectively shape “New Work” environments.

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Professor Niels Van Quaquebeke

Niels Van Quaquebeke is a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at the Kuehne Logistics University as well as a Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Exeter. His mission is to help people understand and improve workplace leadership through research-based evidence.

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