What Drives ‘Kiss Up, Kick Down’ Managers?

By Kathleen Doheny October 12, 2022
What Drives ‘Kiss Up, Kick Down’ Managers?

​At first, Alison thought going to work for someone she knew from college seemed like a great idea. However, after a few months on the job, "I was like the frog in the water that's slowly getting hotter," she said. Her boss was not at all who she thought. When her boss talked to her superiors, according to Alison—who asked that her real name not be published—"she was all about great people management and loved to talk about supporting her people and recognizing a job well done. In reality, she did none of that."

What she did do was take credit for Alison's ideas and work. She would also text and e-mail Alison after hours, despite talking about the importance of work/life balance. Soon after her boss left the company, Alison did too, but she didn't follow her former college classmate. She's at a new company, is very happy there and definitely learned her lesson. Never again will she put up with the destructive management style of her previous boss, which management experts call "Kiss up, Kick down" or KUKD.

While the term has been used at least since the 90's to describe managers who gush over their superiors and belittle their subordinates, the phenomenon has not been comprehensively investigated, according to Niels Van Quaquebeke, a professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Kuhne Logistics University in Hamburg, Germany. Recently, he and Fabiola H. Gerpott, a professor of leadership at WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management in Dusseldorf, Germany, set out to explain the behavior—why it happens and where it's more likely to occur. They reviewed dozens of academic papers and other sources and built their research on the conservation of resources (COR) theory. "If you want to understand something, you have to get into the nuts and bolts to change it," Van Quaquebeke said.

KUKD won't disappear. "It's part of the human condition and striving for status," Van Quaquebeke said. But the researchers have discovered ideas on how to stop it to improve company health.

Why and How

Many managers are under constant pressure to perform and to deliver results. Ingratiating themselves with their bosses while putting the pressure on subordinates seems, to some managers, like the ticket to quick career success. The new research found kissing up works best with superiors who are professionally weak. That's perhaps surprising, but "if you are depleted [as a superior], you are very open to it," Van Quaquebeke said of the willingness to accept and respond to kiss-up actions such as flattery or being offered extra support such as overtime work.

"On the contrary, the employees more likely to be pressured or given extra work are the best-performing, strongest employees," said Van Quaquebeke, who is also a distinguished research professor at the University of Exeter, U.K. Kicking down may involve pressuring employees to work harder, pitting them against one another and chiding them over minor mistakes.

A Limited Timeline, Payoff

KUKD may work in the short term for career goals, but not in the long term. "People do this because they want to accelerate their career, but it's finite how long they can play this game," Van Quaquebeke said. "Initially the payoff is very large." But word eventually gets around when managers act this way, and people start talking—sometimes going over a manager's head to speak with superiors. The superiors, especially the skilled, capable ones, get tired of the brown-nosing and stop rewarding it, or even responding to it. Meanwhile, the pressured subordinates who get kicked down often know how strong they are and leave for other opportunities.

"Ultimately," Van Quaquebeke said, the KUKD manager "is left with nothing, and the [hoped-for] career advancement hasn't materialized."

Similar Research Findings

In a study of 75 professionals in China, other researchers found that managers who kiss up to superiors are more likely to mistreat their subordinates.

Matt Paknis, a workplace consultant in Westport Point, Mass. and author of Successful Leaders Aren't Bullies (Post Hill Press, 2018), said, "My research and experience show that the most talented and decent employees are most often workplace bullying targets. They trigger a bully's great fear of being exposed as an incompetent fraud. Due to their own ego and insecurity, bullying managers are willing to hurt their organization by demeaning and discarding its best talent."

Where It's Prevalent

While the KUKD management style can be found anywhere, the German researchers said it's much more likely in workplaces with ''up or out" cultures, those companies that expect workers to progress up the ladder steadily and quickly. "You need to move up quickly because if you don't, you need to get out," Van Quaquebeke said.

Law firms and consultancy firms are two prime examples of "up or out" cultures, along with ''basically any firm where you can't stay at the bottom'' for long and keep the job, he said.

What Can Be Done?

For managers as well as companies, ''the question is, do we want this?" Van Quaquebeke asked. "And the answer from a lot of us is no, because it's a very destructive behavior. Superiors might like it, but it's not effective."

Among the ways to discourage the behavior, said Van Quaquebeke:

  • Ensure open communication, among all levels—workers, their managers and their superiors—so everyone gets the whole story.
  • Bridge the communication and hierarchy gap by conducting transparency surveys, which should inhibit KUKD. For example, send out a five-question survey every two weeks, asking about the work atmosphere, deadlines and whether people are getting their work done. Results should go to a worker's immediate manager and the manager above.
  • Minimize the up-and-out pressure.

Paknis offered other strategies:

  • Aim for shared incentives and collective goals, not individual goals. "Individual management assessments and goals, rather than shared accountability and collaborative incentives, turn middle managers in the same company against each other, rather than toward external competition," he said.
  • Managers who don't kiss up and kick down but nonetheless work with KUKD managers should aim to form alliances with others who manage as they do.

Even the best tools to minimize KUKD aren't perfect, as Van Quaquebeke knows firsthand. In a previous job, he was honest on a transparency survey, and his manager complained that the survey scores went down after Van Quaquebeke joined the team. He asked Van Quaquebeke to come directly to him with a problem the next time, defeating the purpose of the survey. Soon after that, Van Quaquebeke by chance sat next to one of his company's higher-ups during a plane flight and spilled the story. "He actually took it seriously," he said.

Kathleen Doheny is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles.



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