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Middle Managers…Assets or Liabilities?

The Simulation. And the “Usual” Dramas…

I ran an Organization Workshop recently in Portland, Maine, for Middle Managers.  The “OW” gets to the heart of partnership in organization life – why partnership is critical to organizational success, what gets in the way of it developing, and the role of leaders in making it happen. In the OW, participants are randomly dropped into roles as top executives, middle managers, workers and customers interacting in a fast-paced environment, experiencing situations that regularly occur in these positions. Very quickly it all becomes real–just like what people face day-to-day at work.

The interesting thing is that most of the time the same dramas play out regardless of who is in the simulation, and what their background is. This newsletter focuses on the “world” of Middles: what often happens in the Middle World and how to be more effective in that role… This draws on the work of Barry Oshry, creator of the OW, and is adapted from his book “Seeing Systems”.

What Usually Happens to Middles…

Middles tend to be torn…trying to please the boss and trying to please their staff. Middles often align up (with the boss) or down (with their staff). Middles are trying to keep everyone happy and often don’t succeed. The boss doesn’t see him / her as putting the organization first, and the staff don’t see him / her as representing their needs and taking care of them. Middles usually don’t have the things the staff want, and can’t (on their own) deliver the services that the boss is looking for… Throw in a few more complexities like customers, peers, and family needs, and the life of the Middle can be very stressful and unsatisfying.

What to Do About It…

Fortunately, there are some solutions to consider when you find yourself in a middle role:

  • Be Top when you can. Make the decisions your boss would make when it’s appropriate, and keep your boss informed. You may not always get it right, but when you do it reinforces your value. When you don’t consider it a growth opportunity.
  • Be a Bottom when you should. Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and do “real, non-management work”. When the chips are down your staff will appreciate your hands-on help.
  • Be a Coach. Help your boss understand the needs of your staff. Help your staff understand the “big picture” and the needs of the organization.
  • Be a Facilitator. Instead of constantly running back and forth between your boss and your staff, try organizing a meeting where the boss and staff can get to know each other, discuss what they each want, and find solutions that work for everyone.
  • Integrate regularly with your peers. Middles tend to work in “silos” in organizations and their business work is often done alone. Try meeting regularly with the other middle managers to share information, do mutual coaching and work on system-wide issues that affect all of you.

Middle managers can continue to live in a tearing world, or choose to empower themselves. Effective middle managers are a huge asset to any organization.

David Green.

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