Leading Successfully From The Middle



This article was based on episode 94 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Members of The Modern Manager community are eligible to win 1 of 5 copies of Surrounded by Insanity. Become a by April 21, 2020 to be entered in the drawing - go to mamieks.com/join.


The role of the middle manager has become increasingly complex and demanding. It is too often characterized by the stress of high workloads, continual time constraints and considerable communication demands coming from both team members and supervisors. In addition, many middle managers are responsible for implementing policies and accomplishing goals in which the manager has had no say in creating.


Despite this crucial role being both challenging and exhausting, middle managers typically receive little or no guidance or support from peers, human resources or senior managers on how to succeed in this role.


Donald Meador has found ways to make the job of the middle manager easier to handle. With a degree in computer engineering and an MBA he has successfully led multi-million dollar projects while surviving mergers, promotions, downsizing and re-organizations. Donald is an award-winning speaker and the host of the podcast, “The Corporate Middle,” where he answers the most common middle management questions. He is the author of the book, Surrounded By Insanity: How To Execute Bad Decisions.


AUTONOMY IS A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD


Most of us don’t like being micromanaged. We seek autonomy, believing that the best managers are those who empower people to handle increasing levels of responsibility. But unsupported freedom can come with serious challenges.


Supervisors typically don’t want you to come to them with problems; they want you to bring them answers. Rather than asking this leader an open-ended question such as, “What should I do?”, request their perspective or advice on your opinion or recommendation.


If a team member does bring you a question, don’t turn them away telling them to figure it out on their own. This can leave them feeling abandoned. Instead, effective leaders help an employee find solutions by asking questions such as “What do you think we should do?” and, “What are your feelings about doing that?” These questions convey reassurance, grant ownership of the decision to the employee, and increase autonomy without abdicating your responsibility as manager.


TIPS FOR HANDLING YOUR BOSS’S UNREALISTIC REQUESTS AND EXPECTATIONS


The pressure to accommodate unrealistic goals and expectations in the workplace is often stressful. It’s important to speak up and share your concerns. Occasionally there may be wiggle room for goals to be adjusted. Good managers take their team members' ideas and perspectives into consideration.


When your input isn’t welcomed, avoid arguing about the decision. That approach is not productive. Instead, try the following suggestions:


  1. Accept the fact that the expectation is unrealistic.

  2. Over-communicate with your leader by sharing project and status updates regularly. These actions will softly foreshadow the fact that the goal will not be met and will prevent blindsiding your boss with a missed deadline or outcome.

  3. Acknowledge to yourself that there will be disappointment regardless of what you do. Your only option is to mitigate the level of disappointment.

  4. Accept that people are capable of being illogical and unreasonable. Humans are naturally terrible at estimating timelines and setting deadlines. This admission will help psychologically inoculate you from the inevitable disappointment that will be expressed.


At some point, you may be the one setting unrealistic expectations.


No one is immune to human nature. When you set goals for your team, check in with them to get their perspective. Donald reminds us that our employees are smarter than we are and can do their jobs better than we can. Value their insights and suggestions.


Provide opportunities for employees to voice their concerns. Allow time for team members to explain why they believe a task or goal to be unreasonable or unattainable. Then seriously consider their feedback. Consider if there is any wiggle room to adjust the existing expectations. If this is not possible, acknowledge their points and explain why the project will still have to move forward as originally planned.


TIPS FOR LEADING YOUR TEAM DURING PROJECTS FOR WHICH YOU HAVE NO CONVICTION


Sometimes it’s not as simple as having unrealistic expectations. Sometimes, you fundamentally disagree with the work being asked of you. Your analysis is that the work isn’t strategic, it’s not a good use of time, or it won’t accomplish the larger intended outcome. So how can you motivate your team to work on a project that you do not believe in and would prefer not to do? Try these approaches:


  • Be candid with your team. Do not risk losing their respect and trust by faking your enthusiasm.

  • Present the project realistically and without emotion; explain what the team is being asked to do and outline the challenges or issues you foresee in a straightforward manner.

  • Point out any issues or flaws that you perceive before team members express their own concerns. This open approach will often disarm the team and avoid combative discussions.

  • Identify and explain the potential benefits. These may be indirect benefits such as learning, greater visibility to leadership, a chance to experiment, etc.


When the project is presented within a framework of both weaknesses and benefits, the team will be more inclined to accept it and move forward.


SURVIVING IN A CHAOTIC ENVIRONMENT


An excellent manager might find themselves surrounded by chaos and incompetence. It is helpful to focus on what you can control - at work and in life. You can't control the culture of your organization, but you do control the micro-culture of your own team. You can’t control your boss, but you can manage up by seeking to understand what your boss cares about and aligning your work with their goals.


Focus on making those around you successful. Engage them by asking for their advice. (Everyone loves to give it!) Support them by aligning your needs with theirs. When you lift up others, their success will promote your own personal satisfaction and provide a deep sense of fulfillment.


KEEP UP WITH DONALD


Website: thecorporatemiddle.com/

Book: Surrounded by Insanity


Members of The Modern Manager community are eligible to win 1 of 5 copies of Surrounded by Insanity. Become a by April 21, 2020 to be entered in the drawing - go to mamieks.com/join. Purchase episode guides at mamieks.com/store to help you implement the learnings and continue to enhance your rockstar manager skills.


This article was based on episode 94 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher.

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