The Middle-Management Pickle

10 ways to lead from the center and improve team performance

Back Article Aug 1, 2014 By Lindsay Broder

Middle management is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position. Stuck in the middle, you’re responsible for managing down to your reports, out to customers and clients, and up to your superiors. When it comes to delivering bad news, you’re the messenger most likely to be shot. There’s also the two-tiered pull of relying on your staff’s performance to deliver revenue, which puts you at the mercy of the higher-ups. But being the pickle in the middle also provides you with the opportunity to pack some serious crunch.

Middle management doesn’t have to be forever, and you can take a step back and create a strategy to move higher up the company food chain. The trick to success is multi-layered, a combination of strategic management, savvy decision-making and plain old leadership. So don’t be a floppy pickle. Here are some tips to refocus on your job so you can take control of the middle:

1.) Change your attitude. It’s very easy to get caught up in the whining and complaining that surrounds you. You might be hearing colleagues — other middle managers — grumbling about their employees, their bosses, their customers and the daily news, but engaging in toxic grousing and gossip will only hurt your career and make your days miserable. Shield yourself.

While you want to show empathy and maintain good relations with those you work with, take every opportunity to elevate the conversation by bringing a positive voice or changing the topic. No one likes a Pollyanna. Approach every day and every interaction in problem-solving mode rather than in defeatist mode. You’ll keep yourself and your team motivated and upbeat.

2.) Act like a business owner. At the end of the day, you are running your own business, and that business is you. Being hired by your employer is no different than being hired as an outside vendor to do the same work. Open your mind to treating your department and your team as your own small business.

If your department belonged to you, you would feel accountable for ensuring the enterprise’s success. You would manage your client and customer relationships differently. And you would probably empower your employees more to keep them happy, engaged and generating as much revenue for your business as possible. Even if your paycheck was small, you would sacrifice, knowing that someday the payoff would come. You would manage it all because it would be worth it to you. So, why don’t you do the same as a middle manager?

3.) Treat your boss like your best client. You might feel like your boss gives you a hard time or that no matter what you do, you can’t make her happy. Too bad. You can’t control how your manager behaves. But you can stop thinking of her as someone who watches over you, tells you what to do and holds all the cards of your career. That’s true only if you let her.

You have the right to find another client, or you can figure out how to better serve this one. That means making sure you communicate effectively with your bosses to better understand their priorities and expectations and that you over-deliver wherever possible.

4.) Craft your own management style. Your boss treating you like a minion doesn’t make it OK to do the same to those who report to you. The best middle managers create a positive, supportive culture for their teams despite any mistreatment they get from above. They create a buffer between staff and whatever might be rolling down from above. That’s called leadership.

5.) Stop thinking this is a turf war. Middle managers often get in the way of productivity because they get hung up on protecting their turf. What most of them fail to realize is that by trying to keep their jobs, they risk losing everything. There is a push in some industries and companies to eliminate middle managers altogether because they are expensive to employ and are an organizational layer some companies don’t need. Holding on to your franchise for dear life at the detriment of your team is not going to protect you.

6.) Open your eyes. Given the nature of where you sit on the organizational ladder, middle managers often lose sight of what’s going on around them. It’s easy to lose perspective when you feel like you’re trying to keep everyone happy. You never will, so just do what you think is best for your team while staying open to what you can do better for the organization as a whole.

Keep track of the details and shed any myopic views of your company. Think of the entire wheel, not just the spoke your team represents.

7.) Delegate and support.  Remember, you are not judged on the work you do — you are judged on the performance of your employees and the results of your team. But that does not mean you shouldn’t roll up your sleeves and help when your team is understaffed or in need of support. Doing so will also allow you to remember what it was like on the front line, and you will have a better understanding of how to manage your team when you know the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. It will also show your employees that you work alongside them rather than above them.

8.) Listen more than you talk. No one ever learned anything by talking. The best leaders always prefer to listen rather than speak. When dealing with your managers, pay attention to their needs and pain points so you’ll know what to deliver and how. When dealing with your employees, it’s best to listen so that you know what they need to best get the job done. Sure, your employees must heed your direction, but if you want to be a true leader, shut up and listen. It will put you in a better position to make the right decisions.

9.) Communicate. While you may feel that upper management fails at communication, it doesn’t mean you should follow their lead. Employees perform better when they know the purpose of their labor and when they are kept in the loop of what’s going on above them. Sure, there will be sensitive or confidential information that you are required by your bosses to keep to yourself, but most things you probably can share. Furthermore, honest and ongoing feedback gives staff the opportunity to improve their performance. Use open communication as a way to create a culture that encourages your team to thrive, which will allow you to as well.

10.) Learn to work with what you’ve got. Budgets matter. For your career, how you manage your budget is vital. Yes, many problems take more people and added resources in order to find a solution, but those elements are almost never easy to come by. So improvise. That could mean changing some job functions of your employees, working harder and smarter, and getting creative with problem solving. Limit costs as much as possible, and triage your workflow to make sure you are spending the most time and effort on customers or programs that have the promise of delivering the highest revenue. By giving yourself a reputation for working within your means — and by treating your company’s resources as if they were your own — you are sure to move up the ladder.


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