I have a pet hate – it is referring to middle managers as the “permafrost”, the communication blockers and other similar terms. My reaction is that the derogatory language fails to recognize the challenges of being in the middle and that it is a simplistic generalization.
However, leaders often feel that enthusiasm, innovation and “can do” spirit is too often evident at the top and bottom of their organisations, but not in the middle. Even worse, that the middle layer seems to squash the best intentions of more junior people.
It is tough being in the middle. You get the heat from the top in terms of performance expectations and demands, and you get the resistance and pushback from below. Often, in the middle, you have better visibility of political and strategic issues that may be difficult to share with your teams and may require great diplomacy to navigate through with leadership. It is a tough job.
It is sometimes easier to close down debate and discussion than it is to expose your teams to the ambiguity that exists in any large organization. Your people want answers to questions like
- “What do we want – profitability or growth”
- “If we really care about customers why are we restricting choice?”
- “Why are we sacrificing long-term health for short-term gains?”
- “What is more important – the whole business or just our function/business unit?”
The answers to tensions like this are not straightforward, and middle managers do not have them. So some might say best to avoid them than to debate them, best to keep your head down, focus on the expectations your manager has of you and deliver on that.
But I think that is a mistake and it is borne from the assumption that as a manager you have to have all the answers. You do not. Closing down conversation is highly demotivating as it implicitly devalues the importance of people’s views, reduces clarity about what the organization is trying to achieve, suggests that teams cannot input to delivery of the company’s goals and makes people assume that the answers are out there but not available to them.
It is far better to encourage the team to talk about some of these types of tensions, to work with them on both sides of the arguments and to engage with them in the tough conversations that all leadership teams need to work through. If managers adopt these conversation leadership behaviours they win the respect of both the people who work for them, for the honesty and respect they show their teams, and the leadership for demonstrating that they can create engaging cultures within their part of the organization.