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Squashed in the Middle by You

03 February 2015

Oranges on a tree

Orange in the Middle

Picture yourself as a pulp perfect navel orange, lazing in the afternoon warmth of an early Sunraysia spring. It’s a good life. Every orange in every tree in your orchard is on message to ripen as evenly as you can. There’s no pressure except for the odd nudge here and there from a branch hopping wagtail.

Well, that's the dream. In the bigger picture of oranges and juice, the reality is you can't deny the role of the fiercely competitive supermarket giants and their B Triples.

Tossed into the wash, conveyed through grading, boxing and finally labelled, “Premium Juicer”, you will be trucked off to some mystery city supermarket conglomerate.

Crushed between the citrus producer and the KPI driven supermarket executive you're not exactly in the ideal place for career progression. Metaphors explains a lot about what happens to many middle managers, including those with tertiary qualifications in management.

Premium Oranges Can Survive With Their Juice Intact

Every day middle managers seesaw between the demands of those above and those arising in their teams. It takes balance and emotional intelligence to manage competing pressures while continually making adjustments to maintain stability, productivity, positivity and your own sanity. You are working in a landscape that, by necessity or design, is constantly changing, however subtly that may be. 

Some adapt more easily.

Others feel squashed between the top and bottom plates of a manual vice juice extractor and without resilience and support, pulp, juice, pith and skin could be spraying everywhere but in the catch cup.

There is a plethora of leadership and management development courses on offer, and organisations commit to provide development opportunities, some lavish, for executives. They also willingly invest in training for the front line. However, very little attention is dedicated to delivering training that addresses the expressed immediate needs of those in the middle.

No wonder some middle managers burn out and retreat to the comfort zone of the front line. 

What are some practical strategies for excelling in middle management?

Put Your Own Wellbeing First

It is reasonable to feel a little anxious but listen to yourself: If you feel you might flee at the altar, so to speak, don't take the middle management role until you feel ready. 

“Choice” is an important word. We all always have choices.

Many new middle managers commence their role by coming in early, staying back late and, can you believe, showing up for work on weekends to make up for what they may perceive as conscious incompetence. Mathematically, it doesn’t work to accept a promotion with a salary boost and then volunteer your time in the same organisation. If you are one of those people, check your salary now by dividing the hours you usually work in an average week and see how it looks. Some of you may discover that, in real terms, you are actually earning less now than before you were promoted. 

Staying back may make you look dedicated but it also makes you highly visible. Everyone who comes into work after you and leaves before you sees that you are still there and that can make other people feel guilty and create a source of wash basin gossip. Worse, it sets an unhealthy precedent for all of your direct reports. It's VERY unhealthy, not just for you, but for the organisation as a whole.

Some of you will say that working extra time is expected from managers. Your manager does it and they expect the same from you. Check your contract. If it’s written into your contract that you are required to donate additional hours...well, whoopsy. Perhaps it would have been better if you had checked the fine print first. But, all of that following the old culture is phooey if you want happy staff, and a happy, successful organisation. You are not your job. You have a life and if you don’t have a life, create one.

Set your working hours. Leave a little flexibility for anything that is genuinely urgent.  Spend the rest of your time on healthy body, healthy mind activities.

Get Clear About What Is Expected from You and What You Expect from Others

Middle management is about matching demands and expectations from above and with your team.

Your job exists to help your organisation, via your senior managers, to translate strategy into action. As a middle manager, you are the bridge between the big picture and the detail. You are the conveyor of information to and from senior managers and to and from your team.

It makes sense then to have some idea about what your boss does, to whom they report, their KPIs and challenges, and broadly, how they like to work. More importantly, try to get a handle on their communication style and preferences. This will help you to see where and how you fit with their role and to understand their priorities and pressure points.

By the way, whether you approve or otherwise of your boss’s communication style, people will always do what people do. Try not to be judgemental. No one is perfect, not even you. One good choice is to learn to anticipate your boss’s behaviour and adapt your own behaviour to become appropriately accommodating. That will help to free you to be able to propel yourself forward and may be even share with your boss some of your skills, knowledge, emotional intelligence, etc.

Once you have clarified priorities and deliverables with your boss, take the time to learn about the people in your team. Who are they? What makes them tick at work? How do they think things are going or could be improved? What are their future career plans? Discuss your own role, communication style, etc. as you did with you own boss. Let your team know who you are and what makes you tick. What leadership/management style do they consider motivating? Who do they admire as a leader and manager and why?

It is amazing how many people still think that the best way to motivate people is to cut them down, in the belief that it will inspire them to do better. A better way to motivate your people is to see the good in them and treat them with respect and courtesy. Sharing information always helps to dispel concerns.

Keep Mould at Bay

When things aren’t working quite the way you had hoped, open up a calm, constructive conversation early. Avoid the blame game.

Sentences that commence with “You did...”, “You said...” or “You told me...” demonstrate a culture of blame and abdication from responsibility. Going off your rocker in anger erodes trust and confidence among your team members and gives them a license to talk about your bad behaviour. Blaming and shaming serve only to build anger, resentment and apathy in your team; none of which are conducive to building a high achieving, collaborative workplace. It’s inexcusable to imitate anyone else’s blame game behaviour toward your own team. If it happens to you and you are brave, it might worth nudging your boss in the direction of your priority to find ways to solve the problem, rather than bear the brunt of what went wrong. They may glare at you or come back with an unwelcome retort. Some people just have to have the last word. So let them. 

Taking a proactive approach to dealing with issues with your boss or your team helps to keep you on the front foot. The stability and predictability in your own behaviour helps to build everyone’s confidence and resilience. 

Don't let management happen to you. In the absence of information and/or direction, people find ways to speculate. Before you know it, a tiny solvable problem is out of control. You have a choice to be brave and close down the wash basin clap trap that sometimes has only the flimsiest relationship with the truth.   

When management happens to you, then the juicer is extracting from top and bottom simultaneously. Your personal resilience may become compromised. That is concerning when it flows onto your team and then you take it home to your family.

What If You Think the Top Orange is a Half Mandarin?

There are some middle managers who feel frustrated when they believe that their boss is inept, less intelligent or just sitting it out for a retirement in a job they believe they should have. As frustrated as you may feel, you have a choice to act professionally by keeping your toxic lips sealed. If you spray cynical comments about your boss over your team like pesticide, you are setting a new low in behaviour precedents. 

Demonstrate more broadly that you are ready to step up to the next level by supporting your boss so that you ALL look good.

You Need Your Juice To Manage Unpopular Changes From the Top

All too often middle managers are directed from way above to deliver to their teams messages for unpopular change. For even the most experienced middle manager, this can be confronting, especially when they don’t agree with or understand the changes or what is actually changing remains a mystery.

If you are a middle manager who has been asked to share information about change, here are a few tips that might help you through:

  • Ask your boss to help you to craft some key messages about what the change is, how it will benefit the organisation and the team and what is the likely impact on the team.
  • Be clear that you and your team are keen to be involved in the consultation process.  After all, no one knows more about what you and your team do than you and your team. 
  • Be open about not having all of the answers but be willing to commit to keep the communication lines open.
  • Share what you know when you know you can share information and if there is no update, that is information for sharing with your team. This will help to dispel any of the “They know but they are just not telling us”.
  • Avoid saying or even giving an air of knowing what is going on but being not in a position to reveal. You can lose trust by creating a power differential in your team if you have the temerity to make statements like, “I know but I can’t say right now.” Remember, no one likes surprise parties.
  • Keep in mind that a good change strategy has flexibility and the change may need to change to make it more workable. So its best not to present information from above as set in stone until it’s actually set in stone.
  • Invite questions and discussion among the team members while discouraging cynicism and speculation, especially your own.
  • Make yourself available for your team members' personal concerns about the change, especially if it impacts their job or their personal circumstances.

Finally, be confident, believe in yourself and remember your career comprises many journeys, each with a beginning and an end. Middle management offers its own series of journeys. It’s not a destination. Enjoy those journeys.