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Stuck in the Middle with Management

“Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right / Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.” The Stealers Wheels song wasn’t explicitly addressing middle management, but “stuck” is what it often feels like.

That’s what I hear all the time from dedicated, frustrated people. They can’t get their work done because they’re pulled in so many directions. They’re scheduled into meetings all day, with informal drop-ins and fire-fighting on top of that, so their deliverables don’t get handled until after hours. They typically have almost no formal clout and little experience of using their influence successfully, yet still have to satisfy the demands of people above and below them.

In addition, middle managers often must cover for scanty or inexperienced staff; sometimes they’re the only ones with sufficient technical or situational knowledge to make the day-to-day decisions that keep a business running.

Starting in the late 1980s, corporations purposefully shed layers of management to go lean and mean. In some cases, eliminating hierarchy did reduce bureaucracy and red tape, but overall, it mostly led to a loss of understanding, skills, and historical knowledge. All managers are expected to do more with less. Those in the middle have had virtually no preparation and painfully little guidance due to the loss of the learning-by-apprenticeship that once was the norm.

Walking the High Wire Toward Effectiveness

When employees are overused and under supported, the typical result is significant staff cost due to turnover and disengagement. But there’s also personal cost. It’s hard for over-strapped middles to show the kind of leadership that helps them move up the ranks — if indeed there are ranks to move up!

If you’re in middle management, or if you want to develop middle managers, here are three areas where it’s crucial to clear away the fog of daily stresses to get better traction.

  1. Is there clarity on what’s supposed to be achieved in the current timeframe? Do you know your goals, and have appropriate plans for meeting them? Are you putting your efforts where they’ll accomplish what you’re actually responsible for? Many managers are so busy triaging problems that they lose sight of the departmental plan. If you’re not quite sure about the ends or the means, review your assignments, go back to your manager for direction, and compare notes with your peers to verify strategy and get confirmation on your work plans.
  2. Have you identified what’s actually in your way? If you’re not clear and concrete about the barriers you face and the impacts they’ll have on the business — both financially and operationally — the likelihood is that no one’s going to take you seriously enough to help improve conditions. Do you have the right people on your team? Is there enough cooperation — both upstream and down — or are structures or cultural norms deterring collaboration, quality, or accountability? Lay out your observations, pinpoint the root causes, and set priorities: Which problems can you tackle on your own, and which do you need to explain to your management?
  3. Are you communicating what’s truly important to your team members? If you haven’t invested personally in preparing them for their own work and ensuring it’s congruent with yours, you’re probably just spreading the fog around. Make sure your people feel connected to both you and the larger organization. Establish norms for “how we behave on this team,” and keep sharing your leadership’s mission and trajectory along with the requirements for daily tasks. Otherwise, your people will wander around feeling even more lost than you do, at risk of becoming disengaged and disaffected, which will make your job even harder.

When the Circus Leaves Town

Organizational life is complex, and managers at all levels are imperfect. Even thinking deeply about these three areas won’t solve all your problems or end all your frustrations. But having a better perspective on the clowns and the jokers may help you get a grip on your work and get your team squarely behind and around you. You’ll also start generating clearer ideas about what kind of help you need, and where to look for it.

Keep it up, and you’ll be able to accomplish more. And that’s how you get noticed as the kind of person who creates progress instead of stalling it.

Onward and upward,


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