If your job is in the middle of an organization —as a senior manager, a director, an assistant VP, or even a VP with a couple of levels between you and the CEO — then you’re in leadership, even though you’re not at the top. When you’re in the middle, from time to time, you’ll probably get a direction that rings wrong or gives you a bad feeling, and it’s often hard to know what to do when that happens. Here are some suggestions for saving yourself and your team members at least a little time and aggravation.
Mid-level, project, and team leaders describe this sort of circumstance as: “Our management isn’t leading” or “Our leaders aren’t talking to each other.” Either way, it feels chaotic.
The Dangerous Middle Ground
Here’s a typical example: One or more execs from the level above you miscommunicate or misapply what a more senior leader has directed. Instead of conveying the senior leader’s communication as is, your leader explains their concerns about what the senior leader wants, or elaborates on their problems with the executive team’s position. When different authority figures take conflicting stances, they muddy the waters for everyone else.
You and your team end up feeling unsure about what to do next, and it’s even worse when cross-functional teams are involved. You don’t wish to appear oppositional or defensive, but at the same time, you don’t want to look weak or confused.
The more people there are who feel the same way you do, the more likely it is that the real work will stall. Instead, you’ll see lots of what looks like work: worried pre-meetings to figure out what to say in the actual meeting, and more of the same after the meeting has ended. Conversations will be peppered with: “Can you believe we’re supposed to…” and “Everyone knows we can’t…” and “It doesn’t make sense to do A if they say they want result B.”
What a Leader Should Do
It can be perfectly appropriate for mid-level leaders to express concerns about whatever they think is important. But it’s equally necessary for them to do the equivalent of raising the flag and to say positive things like, “Okay, I see what we need to do. Here’s how we will follow our leader’s direction and take that hill.” If they don’t feel comfortable doing that, it is incumbent upon them, as responsible manager-leaders, to go back to their bosses, discuss the situation again, and make sure they have it sorted out.
Why wouldn’t a mid-level leader want to get things resolved, so that they could give their team a full sense of context, clear goals, and ideas about how to approach the situation? Sometimes things go wrong because people are fearful, or because they respond in patterned ways. They may not realize that they didn’t completely understand the charge from their boss until they were trying to deliver it. Or they may be so concerned about looking weak themselves that they did not raise their objections and concerns upward, and, instead, are unloading them on the people underneath.
What You Can Do to Fix It
It helps if you’ve been in the job long enough to understand the business. It also helps if you actually know the players, so you can recognize whether they’re being anxious, dismissive and self-protective, or unsure and afraid.
Then you can ask yourself: Do I understand what the project leader is telling me? Does it match what my boss usually expects of me? Try to verify whether what the project leader is telling you is actually what the senior leader has said. Definitely verify whether your own understanding is correct: “So you’re saying you want us to do X. Team 1 is responsible for X, Team 2 will work on Y, and Team 3 has Z. Is that correct?”
If you believe you’re not getting straight answers, and still have a nagging feeling that the project is about to go off a cliff, weigh your options, because you never want to be in the position of blindly following anyone’s flag. You need to evaluate the hill so you can find the best way to take it — or else so that you can let your commander know, with all due respect, that there’s actually a better path forward, or even an easier hill to climb. And if your boss isn’t taking your concerns seriously enough, consider whether you know any senior leaders well enough to consult with them.
Use the Chaos as a Learning Tool
You can find powerful lessons in a situation like this. For example, envision what might be on the senior commander’s mind. Besides ensuring that they’ve chosen the right hill, they need to know if their orders are being passed down accurately. If you were the leader, how could you make sure that everyone understands your intent and is on board?
And, in your own role, are there steps you could take to repair or strengthen relationships? Can you help your team members recover from any damage, or align with other team members on your team or cross-functional teams? What are the next steps you can take to help the team work collaboratively?
Trust your instincts. If you feel something is off, it probably is. Rather than following blindly, you may be able to save your team — and yourself — days or weeks of going around in circles. If you assess the situation carefully, you may limit everyone’s aggravation, take the air out of potential ongoing conflicts, and actually get some work done.
Onward and upward —