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Going around your boss: Good idea or avoid at all cost?

Datum:01 mei 2018
Auteur:Thom de Vries
Going around your boss: Good idea or avoid at all cost?
Going around your boss: Good idea or avoid at all cost?

Although supervisors are often seen as central persons in the organization, subordinates often go around their supervisor to discuss work-related matters with higher-level managers. Classic studies on communication and coordination in organizations conclude that between 14 and 66 percent of all communication in organizations takes place between a subordinate and someone higher in the hierarchy than his or her immediate supervisor (see Wilson, 1992). But what are the outcomes of such behaviors? Does it help or hurt performance? That is the focus of this blog.

Supervisor circumvention has been examined within research on employee resistance, voice, and dissent. This research suggests that supervisor circumventing is an “upward dissent” strategy that subordinates can use to voice concerns they have about their job, supervisor, or organization. According to this research, supervisor circumvention emerges when subordinates feel that their supervisor is unresponsive to their concerns. They may also circumvent their supervisor for political reasons (i.e., to get a higher-level executive to instruct or influence their immediate supervisor) or because they think that their supervisor lacks the capacities or resources to effectively respond to their expressed concerns.

The concerns that subordinates voice through circumvention may differ in content. Subordinates can express concerns they might have about the way the organization is functioning. In such cases, subordinates directly inform higher-level management of  problems they have spotted in the organization. Concerns can also be guided by subordinates self-interest. Employees may, for example, want a promotion and circumvent their supervisor to realize this. 

Research on upward dissent has reported a range of outcomes of supervisor circumvention. In most cases circumvention is destructive for the subordinate-supervisor relationship. Supervisors become particularly upset by circumvention when employees use circumvention for their self-interests. In a study conducted by Kassing (2007), circumventing employees had stated that their supervisors became “irritated”, “ticked-off”, and in some cases even retaliated by making the subordinate’s work experience a “nightmare”. Importantly, there are also cases in which circumvention had positive outcomes.

Sometimes supervisors appreciated circumvention, particularly when subordinates used circumvention to express and address concerns related to pressing issues within the organization. In such cases, circumvention may help to save valuable time, because subordinates’ concerns reach higher-level management directly. Specifically, by circumvention, subordinates avoid that the passing of pressing concerns to higher management is delayed or distorted by their intermediate supervisors. This, in turn, can enable a speedy organizational response to the expressed concern. 

In conclusion, the reviewed literature suggests that we should be cautious in using circumvention to express our concerns. Using circumvention for self-interests can easily backfire and create problems in the relationship with the direct supervisor. However, circumvention may be a good idea when we encounter a pressing issue that warrants immediate attention of higher-level managers. But even then, I would suggest that subordinates keep the direct supervisors in the loop to maintain high quality supervisor-subordinate relationships.

Thom de Vries ( is Assistant Professor and Post-Doctoral researcher at the department of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior, Faculty of Economics and Business. He conducts research on collaboration within and between organizations, and new form of team-based organizational structures.



Wilson, D. 1992. Diagonal communication links within organizations. Journal of Business Communication. Vol. 29, pp. 129-143.

Kassing, J. 2007. Going around the boss: Exploring the consequences of circumvention. Management Communication Quarterly. Vol 21, pp. 55-74.