Headknocking, Brick Walls... and What’s a Manager to Do?
by Terri Levine, MCC, PCC, MS, CCC-SLP
It’s great to see many companies are now acknowledging that the old,
traditional methods of management are not effective and they are
modernizing their strategies and taking steps to improve employee morale,
and therefore productivity. CEO’s are taking an active interest because
they have to and senior managements all over the world are issuing new
guidelines and goals to their middle management to initiate.
CEO’s and senior managements accept that low morale among their
workforce means low productivity, which in turn, means low profits. Smart
companies are hiring Coaches and Consultants to turn this around –
everyone wants a happy workforce with improved productivity and profits.
Some companies are trying other methods. But whatever method is being
used, it still falls on Middle Management’s shoulders to implement. They
are in a unique position to see what isn’t working, what won’t work, why
it isn’t or won’t work, and what adjustments could and should be made that
would make it work.
Sadly, for some of them, their senior management, CEO’s and Boards of
Directors don’t listen. Sometimes, when a middle manager tries to express
his view about a new strategy or goal, senior management can sometimes
close their ears. After all, what would this middle manager know? If he
was so smart, he’d be “one of us”. They may listen just to humor him, but
they have their plan of action, and really, they just want him to carry
out orders and toe the line.
If the bottom line employee is the one getting his or her hands dirty,
it’ s middle management who has the task of instructing and overseeing the
way in which their hands are dirtied. They receive their instructions from
those at the top, which is not always the best place to be if you want a
clear understanding of what is happening at ground level. Middle Managers
who attempt to enlighten them often find themselves doing the equivalent
of banging their head against a brick wall.
Too often they are told they are not in a position to “know”, and to
just do as they are told, which is a shame, really, because they are in a
position to know. They may not know what plans are discussed in the
boardroom, but they do know whether the plan is working or has a hope to
work in real life, or at the very least, be able to identify trouble spots
where some tweaking of plans would be ideal.
It is frustrating for middle managers when their senior management, the
CEO, and the Board members, expect them to carry out reforms and oversee
changes that are designed to make improvements, but may be misguided and
miss their mark.
So, does the middle manager assertively argue with his senior
management and risk his or her position and possibly jeopardize his own
career goals within the organization? Nobody wants to rock the boat if it
means their job is on the line, or they’ll be ostracized, even if they
know they could save the company thousands in misspent dollars on
initiatives which are poorly designed. And there are those in senior
management who simply don’t want to be “shown up” by a lower level manager
who may just know ‘better’ than they do… so reports and advice are not
passed on. Middle Managers are humored and sent on their way.
What can a middle Manager do in this situation? When he has an idea he
knows will work better, but his own senior management won’t even do him
the honor of hearing it? He knows the instructions he’s been given are
going to be a waste of time, mostly his time, and there isn’t anything he
can do about it because those who make the decisions higher up, simply don
’t want to listen.
This brick wall is familiar to many Managers. They’re too scared to
speak up too loudly because their family’s welfare and the family home
(mortgage) are often riding on his/her permanent paycheck arriving each
month. He can’t afford to rock any boats. Meanwhile, his own boat is
sinking and the Captain has left the ship to play golf.
So off they go to try and achieve their set goals and unable to achieve
them successfully, yet powerless to do anything about it. The system or
the senior level of management has let them down. And when this happens
time and time again, it is a very demoralizing experience for the Manager
So, what can a Manager do? There are courses of action one can take,
some of which involve jumping off the deep end with their eyes closed – a
leap of faith, and some which are just plain old common sense approaches.
1. A Manager can continue to do what is always done and the
organization will not achieve anything worthwhile. If you are the type of
Manager who doesn’t particularly care, just so long as his gets his/her
pay check each month, then there isn’t a problem for you.
2. If you are the type of middle Manager who does care and who is
getting a headache from the way the system operates, you can lay it on the
line with your senior Management and just tell them like it is – politely,
of course. If you strongly believe doing this would be detrimental to your
career within the company, then you need to think carefully about this
first. Feel your way; find a pair of friendly ears – someone must be
willing to listen to you and help you champion your case. If not, is your
career really likely to suffer, and if it is, can you live with that or do
you have a contingency plan?
3. If you are really fed up, whether you decide to be assertive and
speak up or not, maybe you should speak to a Career Coach or look for a
new job. If your income is the sole income that your family depends on,
maybe you should also start putting some aside for the possible
eventuation that one day, you may be out of a job and need several months
worth of savings to live on until you find new employment. If you never
need to use these funds, the little nest egg you’ve saved will always come
in handy for other things.
4. Maybe you can put it in a report and present it if a verbal
presentation is out of the question. Or maybe you can organize a private
chat with an influential senior level Manager, or the CEO, and have a
heart to heart. Maybe the problem is with your own immediate manager. That
’s a common scenario. You could try providing your immediate manager with
a written report and copy it in to the CEO, and that way, whether your own
manager is dismissive or not, you know the CEO is finally going to
hear/read what you have to say.
5. Don’t just criticize any goals or plans or instructions that have
been handed down for you to carry out without providing sound reasons and
examples of why it doesn’t work, or won’t work, and perhaps hasn’t worked
in the past. List alternative courses of action that you believe will work
and ask for permission to try them. Where possible, show evidence of where
and how your suggestions have worked and why they will work in your
current situation. Show the organization the benefit to them of
implementing YOUR strategies rather than the ones they have designed. And
don’t dismiss the possibility that maybe senior management does know
something you don’t, and maybe once they enlighten you, you will feel
differently about everything!
6. Then there are those who admire managers who are willing to take
risks. But it’s a fine line between showing initiative and
insubordination. To deliberately disregard a directive from your own
senior manager and implement your own plan which you believe will work
(and his won’t) takes more than just courage. If you are wrong, your job
and your reputation are on the line. Of course, if you are wildly
successful, even the CEO will sing your praises (although there will
always be some slight concern about your willingness to toe the line!)
In some organizations, middle management are not expected to make
certain ‘executive’ decisions and their level of authority and
responsibility is low. They are just a link in the chain of command. Some
managers are happy to be here – they can safely ‘pass the buck’ upline.
Many managers at this level are too scared to make decisions or instigate
their ideas for change for fear of negative repercussions in the form of
losing one’s job, or chances for promotion.
The trouble has always been, and continues to be, that in some very
large organizations, senior level management are too far removed from the
real day-to-day operations to know what is going on, let alone what will
and will not work. When something fails, rather than admit the plan was
bad, blame is laid at the middle Manager’s feet. It must be his fault –
couldn’t possibly be our excellent plan!
This situation can occur in both large and small organizations. It
occurs in very large organizations, because usually a more authoritarian
style of management tends to be used. In this situation, middle managers
are expected to do as they are told and not question their superiors.
However, larger organizations who train their managers in a more
participative style of management and who practice open communication and
the expression of ideas are happy to find this system works.
It occurs in smaller companies because unlike the larger companies who
can at least afford to hire experts to help them, smaller companies rely
on their existing resources and their own board of directors. On the plus
side, smaller companies find it easier to adopt a team spirit and engage
in teamwork – which involves the middle manager, naturally, but all is not
necessarily plain sailing if there are personality clashes or the company
has limited funds to bring in outside experts and instead, consider
themselves to be the experts.
Senior level management need to take more notice of the Managers below
them. Listen to them and their suggestions; include them at your around
table discussions and forward planning sessions. It may save your company
thousands of wasted hours and dollars, and if nothing else, will improve
your middle management’s morale and their own level of productivity!
Terri Levine MCC, PCC, MS, CCC-SLP is CEO of Coaching
Instruction, a Master Certified Coach, Public Speaker, and Author of “Stop
Managing, Start Coaching”, "Work Yourself Happy", "Coaching for an
Extraordinary Life", and “Create Your Ideal Body. Contact via the website
http://www.terrilevine.com or call: 215-699-4949.