The Value of Managing Up: A Field Experiment in the Workplace

Management strategies significantly influence worker productivity, retention, career growth, and the overall performance of a firm. Traditional top-down approaches have typically underscored the importance of supervisors in shaping managerial quality and employee performance. Much research suggests that training supervisors to effectively manage their subordinates may be a useful way to enhance supervisor-worker relationships and, in turn, boost firm productivity. However, these approaches may face two primary challenges. First, managers frequently encounter constraints regarding time and attention, potentially reducing their effectiveness in supervisory roles. Second, the benefits of training less competent managers could be minimal, thereby limiting improvements in worker productivity and retention.

An emerging alternative is the concept of "managing up," where employees are prompted to take more control in their relationships with their superiors. This strategy is gaining attention in both academic and industrial circles, but its efficacy has yet to be empirically validated. By encouraging workers to actively engage in building professional relationships and communication channels with their supervisors, this approach may alleviate the limitations on managerial time and attention. Furthermore, it could minimize reliance on managers' competence for the transmission of skills and knowledge.

This study seeks to examine these contrasting strategies and fill the existing research gap on these subjects. Specifically, we will investigate three primary questions: 1) Does managing up enhance employee productivity, retention, and career prospects? 2) Is managing up more effective in improving employee performance compared to the traditional top-down approach? 3) Under what circumstances and for which employees is managing-up training most impactful?

To answer these questions, we plan to conduct a randomized controlled trial involving a multinational spa chain with over 5,000 workers across roughly 150 stores. The stores will be randomly allocated into three groups: managing up (T1), managing down (T2), and a control group. In the managing-up group (T1), workers will receive online training through the firm’s e-learning portal, focusing on enhancing their abilities to effectively interact and manage their supervisors, including managers and middle managers. Conversely, in the managing-down group (T2), supervisors will undergo online training aimed at improving their skills in managing their subordinates. These training interventions are particularly designed to enhance the managerial relationship between supervisors and workers. By providing workers and supervisors with the necessary skills and tools to effectively manage their working relationships, we aim to foster a more productive and cooperative work environment, and anticipate observing positive impacts on employee performance.

By collecting survey data before and after the training, alongside administrative data on worker performance and retention, we aim to measure the impacts of the different management approaches. The insights derived from this study will contribute to our understanding of management practices and their influence on employee outcomes and firm performance.