Making a Difference as a Middle Manager

Dick Heller

Q: What is the best method for transforming an environment where the Executive Director believes and even says out loud that there is only one right way to do things and he knows what the way is? He maintains a strong control on information, does not solicit employee input, talks about staff negatively behind their backs, and blocks change. Needless to say, tasks delegated by this person are rare and doomed to fail. No time is allowed for meetings between collaborating departments. Our company employs less than 50 people and many of them are so disheartened. How can I make a difference as a middle manager with a lot of responsibility and not much authority?

A: You raise one of the most common, universal workplace dilemmas. Most people want to use their own curiosity and creativity to do their work and nobody wants to be micromanaged. The controlling behavior that you describe is contrary to this truth and almost always counterproductive. Many research studies, including our own, have shown that management behavior that is perceived as controlling will result in low credibility and lack of commitment. That is a recipe for long-term disaster.

You mention that people are 'disheartened,' which generally leads to two alternative results. Either people become disengaged and 'go through the motions' at work or, if they are clear about their own core values, they will eventually find another, more fulfilling place to work. In today's jargon, this is the problem of talent retention.

It will take courage to step forward and change the situation if, as a middle manager, you make the choice to make a difference. You will have to lead the executive director (ED) to see a new path for achieving the business objectives he seeks, and you have to lead your colleagues to a new sense of possibilities to prevent them from jumping ship and harness their energy to join you. I suggest you adopt a very straightforward approach, directly applying The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership outlined in The Leadership Challenge.

"Model the Way" by clarifying the values that are driving your choice. When you find your voice, you can help your colleagues to raise the level of dialogue at work. It sounds like issues of personality and disagreement are dominating conversation and keeping people from developing the required new focus on the business issues at hand. You can model the behavior of stepping up to create new relationships at work.

"Inspire a Shared Vision" by helping everyone, including the ED, to see the advantages of a future situation in which everyone is pulling together to succeed. The clearer you can be about articulating the necessary change and the advantages of working in a different way to achieve the results the ED seeks, the better others will be able to share the aspirations and strive to achieve them.

This is, of course, is about "Challenging the Process" and we all know that people frequently resist change. Someone like your ED, so set in his ways, can seem like a formidable obstacle to progress. One key approach, as Dick Nettle of Bank of America has said, is to "make staying the same more painful than the change." Motivating others to change established habits is often based on their realizing that the costs of their current behavior are too great. Are people leaving? Is productivity lower than it might be? A possible strategy here might be to get a group together to take on a specific aspect of your work and create a prototype of a more effective process to prove your point to the boss.

Your goal, certainly, is to "Enable Others to Act." If you choose to lead, you must enable yourself first. Are you and your colleagues waiting for permission to act? This may be one of those cases where it would be better to seek forgiveness than ask permission by enabling yourselves to work together and proving your point by showing the ED the efficiencies and improved results you achieve by collaboration.

If you do choose to step forward and turn things around, you will need to "Encourage the Heart" along the way. A suggestion here is to be sure that you encourage and support the ED and his goals. You need to help him see that you understand that the goal is progress and coordination business success, not confrontation for its own sake.

Good luck out there.

Dick Heller is an energetic and enlightening consultant, trainer, and speaker who has worked with organizations in the U.S. and abroad to design programs that enhance leadership, team building, and customer service in climates of change.

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