Embracing the middle manager’s role as ignorant speed bump

Published by Peter on

A friend told me about a situation last week that seemed all too familiar.

Their team at work was in the middle of a big three-week production—lots of internal communications and several events across the enterprise, aimed at incentivizing and recognizing employee contributions.

This ambitious production had been in planning for eight months, and it had built a good buzz of excitement. The CEO was actively promoting it.

With everyone on the small core team working full speed just to keep the appearance of things running smoothly, the team’s vice president had a question.

“Why does the daily progress report show X? I think it should show a slightly different version of X.”

The manager of the core team forwarded the VP’s question on to the project leader.

And this was exactly the wrong thing to do.

Normally, ignorance should be expected and even celebrated

The manager didn’t know the answer to the VP’s question. She wasn’t sure why the daily progress report used that calculation for X; that’s how it was in the project plan, and that’s how it had been done for years.

The manager also had no idea what kind of work went into producing the daily progress report. No one had told her that the report was tediously assembled each day from a diverse set of data sources. The team wanted to provide the pretty result without everyone knowing all the ugly detail.

I don’t fault the manager for not knowing these things. In fact, I celebrate that she trusted her team to do the job and follow the project plan. She was not micromanaging them.

Every good manager should have some ignorance of the details of the jobs their employees do.

If the manager knows everything, then the team is likely overstaffed and underutilized, or the manager is micromanaging to a fault.

Many people have a misconception that the manager should be more expert at the work than any of their employees. I think that’s backwards in most cases; the manager should be most expert at managing their team, allowing their team members to be the subject experts.

That misconception can lead inexperienced managers into poor decision making, especially under stress and tight deadlines.

a warning sign showing that the shallow water drops off quickly to deep water
Better for managers to stay safe in their shallow knowledge and leave the deep details to their expert employees.

Competing personal priorities

The middle manager is, by definition, in the middle. This means they need to interact both up and down the org chart.

In every interaction there are several competing factors the middle manager needs to deal with:

  • Achieving the team’s goals
    Most managers and teams set goals early in the year. If the team’s success is measured on these goals, then meeting the goals is a primary objective of the manager.
  • Looking good to superiors
    Everyone wants to look good to their boss, and to be seen as doing a good job. Contradicting the boss can be hard, even when it’s the right thing to do.
  • Honoring the power structure
    Sometimes you just have to live with the edicts from above and do the best you can. Fighting against decisions that are set in stone is a waste of time and energy; the best middle managers know when to push back and when to acquiesce.
  • Motivating, empowering, and retaining staff members
    Perhaps the single most important job of a middle manager—nothing gets done without the work of the staff. Motivated teams accomplish great things, but disengaged employees and staff turnover can be incredibly disruptive.
  • Juggling many projects
    Often, a middle manager has their own work as well as several initiatives under them. Especially in lean organizations, middle managers can be overloaded with too many high priority items, leading to poor decision-making.

How this manager’s response was wrong

The manager in this case gave in to all the wrong feelings:

  • She didn’t want to look bad to the boss: Rather than reveal that she didn’t know the answer, she forwarded the question on to her team.
  • She didn’t want to look bad to her staff: The manager thought she should know how the daily progress report was made, but she didn’t. Rather than reveal that to the staff, she just relied on her position as manager to pass her boss’ request along.
  • She didn’t want to buck the power structure: In the middle of a live production, changing the daily progress report could be disruptive and risky. Rather than push back on midstream changes, the manager gave in to her need to present a “my team can do anything you need at a moment’s notice” image to her boss.

In this case, instead of acting as a critical-thinking buffer between the VP and her own staff, she simply stepped aside and took herself out of the problem.

How it should have gone

The manager should have replied to the VP with the truth: “This is how we’ve done the daily progress report for years. To change it in the middle of the production might confuse a lot of people who understand the report as it is. Let me check with my team on why we report it this way, and what it would take to do it the way you suggest.”

Why is this better?

  • It’s the truth.
    In the workplace, we should transact in truths. It’s important to be clear about what is known, what is unknown, and what is ambiguous—tiptoeing around truth leads to bigger problems down the road.
  • It protects the staff.
    Instead of just dropping a task of unknown weight, unknown value, and unknown disruption on the staff, the manager should ask the staff for their assessment. In this case, the request was a bad idea for many reasons, and the staff member responsible for the daily progress report would have been able to explain that right away. Instead, it’s now on the staff member to decide whether to push back against a VP, or to do a lot of work to make the requested change.
  • It prevents unintended consequences.
    Holding up the request a moment in order to understand all its effects and side effects will reduce unintended consequences. When a VP disrupts a process midstream without understanding all the intricacies of the process, it can create more problems than it solves. The middle manager needs to be that point of pause and consideration.

You may see a pattern here: The middle manager role involves managing both up and down the org chart. Doing so effectively requires a solid understanding the team’s role in the mission, the ability to maintain the proper command of detail and ambiguity, and the courage to speak truth to power.

three people standing facing away from the camera considering a document on a wall with text too small to read
Being in middle management can feel lonely and dark.

It shouldn’t require courage, but it often does

A lot of managers, especially new managers or those who feel disempowered in their organizations, have a hard time with this. They don’t want to be seen as ignorant speed bumps.

But frequently, that’s exactly what the company needs them to be.

The higher up the org chart you go, the more removed from the work you are and the more you rely on those below you for reality checks.

Good executives understand that their middle managers need to feel safe and confident in providing those reality checks.

I once worked under a VP who considered any pushback a “bad career move.” That VP was so in love with his own power that he would label people who pushed back as bad workers, unreliable, and even lazy. He drove a lot of good people away, including me.

Regardless, the right response is still the right response, even if the VP refuses to listen to expertise, experience, and reason.

As a middle manager, you have willfully taken on the responsibility of being in the middle. You are responsible for reporting to your boss, and you are responsible for managing your team.

When those two responsibilities conflict, you’re the one who has to reconcile it. It’s why your job exists.

As they say, shit rolls downhill. I’ve had great managers who do their best to shield their teams from it, and I’ve had others who let it flow freely past them because they only looked out for themselves.

As an employee, I appreciated the managers who consulted with me to decide whether to push back on ideas from above. They took my input as part of the greater context, then made thoughtful decisions.

I did not appreciate the managers who stepped aside to let all the shit flow downhill. “The VP said this. It may be the dumbest idea and impossible to execute, but he said it, so I don’t care what you think. Deal with it.”

For my part, I’ve tried to be the type of manager who empowers my team members, respects their expertise, and provides honest and complete information to my superiors.

Like everyone, I’ve made mistakes.

And like all middle managers, I’ve sometimes been put in impossible and irreconcilable situations. Those are the moments that reveal who you are—your values, your fears, and your quality.

Things flow downhill. As a manager, are you an open pipe or an effective filter?

What’s your leadership style?

Whether you’re a new manager, someone looking to get into management, or a seasoned executive, you should periodically think about your leadership style and how you show up.

Being able to articulate your leadership style can serve as a guide for those impossible moments.

The end of the year is a convenient time to reflect on your good and bad moments, and think about why your actions worked or failed.

Although you can think about what you might have done differently, there’s also value in simply observing the decisions you made and the reasons you made them. Rather than rethinking them, focus on becoming more aware of your behavioral and thought patterns.

What led you to take the action you took? What did you know at the time? What were your fears? What external pressures and incentives were influencing you?

This will help you to understand your own leadership style… both how you lead now, and how you might want to be perceived.

Are you the kind of leader who tosses down edicts from your ivory tower? Who wants to understand every detail of every task? Who acts as player-coach setting the game strategy while also working alongside your team? Who lets the shit flow freely downhill? Or something else?

If you want some help thinking through this and becoming a more complete and more effective manager or executive, let’s talk. First conversation is always free, no strings attached.


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