The Managing-Up Trap for Content Marketers

With remote work the norm, managing up has become more popular and more essential. But should content marketers go all-in on this relationship-building strategy?

Written by David McCarthy
Published on Feb. 12, 2021
The Managing-Up Trap for Content Marketers

The practice of managing up is having a moment.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, its popularity has soared, reaching peak interest over the past five years, according to Google Trends. People search for the term around 4,500 times a month, according to Moz. And since October of 2020, hundreds of articles have been written on the topic, including pieces in the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Forbes and more.

With its popularity growing, is managing up the daily career practice that up-and-coming content marketers need to do more of? Not necessarily.


What Is Managing Up?

Brush aside the images of The Offices Dwight Schrute or Mad Mens Bob Benson. Thats not managing up, thats sucking up — and they aren’t the same. Managing up is much more strategic and, ideally, less nakedly selfish.

Generally, the term refers to the purposeful ways you build a relationship and communicate with your manager to more easily meet your business goals, your managers goals, your own role’s goals and your career goals.

There are a lot of approaches to take here, but best practices revolve around a few foundational principles: 

  • Learn what success really looks like for you and for your boss and work together toward that.
  • Develop a personalized communication strategy with your manager.
  • Deftly and regularly clarify your working style and career goals.

Few content marketers can build a sustainable, prosperous career without employing these basics of the practice. Managing up is essential in any setting — from a flat-org start-up with 25 employees to a highly matrixed corporation with offices in 25 countries.

But too much time spent managing up may not lead to better projects, better positions or better pay for content marketers in the long run; in fact, it may mean the opposite.


Why Content Marketers Risk a Managing-Up Trap

When their leaders require extensive managing up, content marketers face a trap, both in their day-to-day projects and, as a result, their career. The extra time and energy spent on the practice can strangle agility, experimentation and optimization — three elements that enable content marketers to thrive and reflect the content appetite of buyers online.

Corralling buy-in for buy-ins sake stalls the launch of a campaign, as well as the rest of the work in your queue. Two hours spent on a proposal pitching a new LinkedIn post format could have been spent creating the post, publishing it and assessing early, real-time data. A slog to content production and distribution and a minimal tolerance for risk (if content can be called risky) essentially voids the potential of optimizing your content strategy. Within the digital content function, managing-up traps like these can impact business objectives and wreak havoc on workflows.

And when business outcomes are at risk, careers are too. Imagine a marketing director at a high-growth SMB who is hiring a senior content marketer. The new roles goals focus mainly on growing organic traffic and supporting lead-generation efforts — typical content-marketing responsibilities.

Two candidates, both from the same industry, make the final round: One has a diverse portfolio of work across a range of channels, experience with adjusting strategy on the fly to maximize returns and a strong intuition for what works. The other is familiar with a few content types, keenly understands team dynamics and relationship building and typically opts for well-established content-marketing practices.

Which candidate would the director entrust with those objectives?

Both candidates offer benefits, but given the goals, the first seems like she would have the upper hand, even in a company’s “peace time.” Digital content is dynamic. Careers that match those attributes have the advantage.


5 Signs of a Managing-Up Trap

The signs of a managing-up trap may be more difficult to pick up, especially because of how personal and unique the relationships between managers and direct-reports can be.

However, five stand out as clear signs of a managing-up trap for content marketers:

  1. Your collective goals are consistently unclear. When team objectives aren’t SMART, vague strategy and fragmented projects become the norm. Combined, those can thwart attempts to develop a program (instead of just a single project), invest in new tech or new channels and acquire new responsibilities.
  2. Your manager misunderstands content marketing. If leaders view content marketing solely as content development (e.g., writing an ebook) or copywriting (e.g., writing a landing page) — or if they overlook the effect of algorithms on distribution — your ability to contribute more to the team and to grow your career will be limited.
  3. Your ideas routinely require formal pitches. A calculated content risk that fails will not break the internet, and it will likely not tarnish your brand. Leaders who struggle to understand that and require formal pitches on reasonable experiments as a means to mitigate that risk likely require lots of education (and lots of time) to come around.
  4. Your unique expertise is regularly ignored. If you consistently and objectively demonstrate your expertise (e.g., sharing data-driven best practices) but get excluded from key decisions around that subject matter, there’s likely a relationship dynamic or barrier that standard managing up cannot overcome.
  5. Data isn’t given a role in decision-making. If leaders dismiss data or show little interest in understanding its context, personality and politics may be the primary powers of influence, neither of which may provide long-term advantages.

Some of these signals may sound harsh, but their effects on your career are harsher.


The Choices Trapped Content Marketers Face

The most important question is the hardest to answer: How do you get out of a managing-up trap? Unlike when you first began to manage up in your role — when the tactics were seemingly endless and the benefits easy to imagine — excessive managing up ultimately seems to leave only a few options.

  • Expand your managing-up tactics. As the least risky but the most time-intensive option, expanding your managing-up efforts one last time is an attempt to validate that you tried and to create the change you’ve been seeking. If this doesn’t budge the needle, a more explicit request may be in order.
  • Ask for your own set of SMART objectives. Positioning a request for specific goals around making your manager’s job easier and upping your performance may cue the candid conversation you’ve been waiting for. And these concrete goals will provide you the touchstone for your project proposals and growth opportunities. But if showing your cards yields little, it may be time for a change.
  • Find a new team. In the end, if managing up and making explicit requests for goal and direction don’t lead to the projects and growth you need, your company or your team may not be the right one for you right now in your career.

In the end, the decision likely comes down to this: Do you want to spend your time, talent and energy in your current role attracting the attention and consideration of new buyers or attracting attention and consideration from your team leaders? The right role likely won’t force you to choose.

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