The vast majority of middle managers I have worked with want to be good leaders. They are eager to learn and try new ways of interacting at the workplace that promote and bring out the best in their team, and they don't have it easy. They are the meat in the leadership sandwich with pressures coming from above, below, the side and even from home.
These leaders in the middle are trying to translate strategy into actions. Take an IT manager I recently worked with, he was trying to interpret strategy statements such as 'we need technology to place us at the forefront of our industry and offer our clients a seamless user experience' into specific actions a team of concrete thinking technical experts could understand and execute upon. He was then required to help senior leadership understand what a reasonable timeframe was for their vision to become a reality. As is often the case, the actual timeframe did not fit with the senior executives' desired timeline. He was faced with doing some very skilful negotiation.
Middle managers are expected to deliver results while dealing with more of the people side of the business than ever before. Their increased focus on people also means they are further removed from the work that drew them into their field in the first place. Often these managers will dive into the weeds more than they should from the perspective of their team and their boss, but they are often doing it because they like the work and they have a greater sense of comfort and control.
It's not an easy spot to be in, and everyone who's been there knows it. I once had an executive tell me, 'I became and executive so that my job would be easier than it was as a middle manager'.
Today's middle managers are tomorrow's senior and executive leaders. They are also an incredibly powerful group of people when it comes to generating results and change within an organisation. Good middle level leaders listen intently to their direct reports and have their finger on the pulse of what's happening on the front line of the organisation.
The irony is the amount of training and support provided to middle managers compared to senior leaders is dramatically disparate. There are not many popular books expressing the ways in which to become a stellar mid-level leader. Even research is heavily biased to senior levels.
So, what is a middle manager to do? My research addressing why leaders fail points to an interesting advantage of middle managers over senior level leaders. In technical terms the area of this advantage is called 'problems with interpersonal relationships', 'lack of interpersonal intelligence', or 'low emotional intelligence'. This reason for failure can really be summed up quite simply:
Being a jerk.
When others rated their boss on the scale of 'problems with interpersonal relationships' I found that middle managers were rated as significantly less likely to derail in this area than leaders at higher levels. From my observations, there are many potential reasons for this including but not limited to senior leaders being increasingly visible and required to execute more tasks through delegation. Delegation is dependent on strong relationships. Senior leaders may also be pulled in even more and different directions as they have an increased focus on external stakeholders leaving less time for building relationships internally. They may also have been promoted for their ability to get results no matter what the means for obtaining those results were.
Whatever the reason, middle managers have the opportunity to identify their interpersonal strengths and weaknesses now to prevent troublesome approaches and behaviour in the future. They have the chance to not become the jerk boss.
In my experience and research, there are three typical kinds of jerk bosses:
The Aggressive Boss:
This is the person that is regularly yelling at their team. They're barging into meetings without any concern for what work is being done. They're putting people down and consistently telling them their work is not good enough. People in the Aggressive Boss' wake either feel bad about themselves or harbor deep anger and resentment toward the boss.
One result of the Aggressive Boss' behaviour is people feeling fearful about putting forward work or ideas. Thus stifling innovation and an organisation's ability to remain competitive. Another is people complying in the moment to avoid the boss' wrath and behaving differently outside the room. This behaviour leads to in-fighting, siloing and confusion of direction for lower level staff.
The Arrogant Boss:
'I'm right and you're wrong' is the motto of the Arrogant Boss. They judge from on high with little regard for the time, effort and intention behind the work of others. They believe they are better than those around them and it shows.
Those who are being scornfully regarded by this type of boss can feel like they never live up to expectations, so why even try? Or they may focus more on trying to reach the Arrogant Boss' bar as opposed to working with and developing their own team. The result is leaders in the middle not feeling good enough and lower level staff not feeling very important.
The Distant Boss:
A frosty chill is in the air every time this type of boss comes into the room. They show no emotion and make no attempts at connecting with others. They appear to disregard everyone.
Staff gazing from afar struggle to know and understand this person, while not being able to read him or her. The result is people regularly second guessing their course of action due to the lack of engagement. They may also feel like their boss simply doesn't care or understand them. This lack of feeling valued and understood leads to a lack of trust, and without trust, moving collectively toward an organisation's vision becomes next to impossible.
So…what is a middle manager to do to avoid a future of possible jerk-dom?
By far, the best course of action is getting to know yourself and your impact on others. This is not a kumbaya suggestion, this is a data driven, structured opportunity to know more about how you lead.
Conducting your own leadership assessment
- Identify a handful of people you trust and who will give you genuine, honest feedback. These can be direct reports, your boss, your peers, and even your significant other.
Sit down with each of these people and ask them to provide answers to two questions. Request that they be open and honest, and be prepared
to listen carefully to what they have to say:
- What do I do well in my interactions with others?
- What could I improve upon in my interactions with others?
Based on the feedback, identify your top 3 strengths and your most mentioned area for improvement. Find specific ways you can increase the
behaviours mentioned as strengths, and look for opportunities improve on your weakness. Strategies to consider include:
- working with a mentor
- engaging a coach
- reading literature on the subject in question, and
- reflecting on leaders you admire and how they interact with others.
- As you work to build your leadership skill, follow-up with the people who gave you feedback. Tell them what you have attempted, and ask them what improvements they have noticed.
A simple self-driven assessment can give you some incredibly valuable information about your leadership. The early correction of jerk-like habits is much easier to do than when they're a major career limiting problem. Start today.
If you are seeking more detailed information about your leadership ability consider engaging a reputable coach who can take you through a formal assessment and coaching process. There is no substitute for a trained professional supporting your development.