When Managers “Kiss Up and Kick Down”
Why is it that managers are cooperative and engage in flattery with their own bosses—and then act entirely different to their own employees? And when, and with whom, does this approach work? Researchers at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and the Kühne Logistics University (KLU) sought answers to these questions. Their new article offers tips for how organizations can counteract this phenomenon.
They’re sweet as pie to their own bosses. But the second they’re left to their own devices, they take off their mask, shouting at and demeaning their own employees. Why do certain managers behave this way—and what do they get out of it? It is precisely these questions that Fabiola H. Gerpott, Professor of Leadership at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, and Niels Van Quaquebeke, Professor of Leadership & Organizational Behavior at KLU, posed themselves. Their answer? Many managers, particularly those in middle management, are under constant pressure: They continually must deliver results to get ahead and not find themselves “stuck in the middle.” Some opt to employ some rather controversial behavioral tactics. As they try to garner favor from their own bosses to advance in their careers, they exploit their team to the fullest extent they can. 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,” explains Fabiola Gerpott. “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.” Niels Van Quaquebeke put the strategy, referred to as “Kiss-Up-Kick-Down” (KUKD), into perspective, saying, “There’s a catch. The longer you try to do this—kissing up to superiors while also kicking down your employees—the less it will work. You would have to jump to the next position or move companies as quickly as possible if you, with regards to the resources gained, hope to take the next step in your career.”
What can companies do to combat such behavior?
It’s important for a company to understand the function that KUKD can fulfill for a manager. 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. 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 take place across the hierarchical levels both above and below the focal managers.
Companies should take measures to increase cross-hierarchical transparency, e.g., by obtaining feedback from all levels. Additionally, it is imperative during hiring/personnel selection phases to be on the lookout for any indications of such behavior (in both directions) on the part of the manager in question. This is particularly important in highly competitive industries where managers can easily jump from one company to another.
Original publication: Fabiola H. Gerpott und Niels Van Quaquebeke (in press): 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, Journal of Management Studies https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12855