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Is your middle management freezing progress? 4 ways to empower change

Middle managers without enough autonomy may freeze progress in its tracks to avoid risk. Here is how organisations and the front-line leaders themselves can change the dynamic

As organisations grow, we discover internal realities and challenges at a team and leadership level that are holding a company back. As teams emerge and expand, they often find that there is a management problem. Specifically, those who sit in the middle of the management structure are seen as a blocker.

In financial services, for example, managers tend to lean towards job security, which leads them to be more risk-averse or less experimental. That attitude does not bring progress or innovation. In the fast-moving world of technology, where speed and agility are key, having a management layer that is slower unable to keep pace with change is not tenable.

This layer of management has come to be known as “frozen middle management.” However, we need to ask ourselves: What is the real underlying cause of middle management becoming frozen?

Freeze alerts: Too little autonomy, too many silos

The answer lies hidden in the organisational culture that freezes the middle management. This is particularly pronounced in hierarchical organisations where middle managers struggle to have the autonomy or authority to make decisions, yet they remain responsible for the outcomes and results of projects. Another challenge is either lack of, or fragmented, cross-functional collaboration leading to more siloed ways of working.

Do your middle managers struggle to have the autonomy or authority to make decisions?

These situations are peppered with dynamic power struggles, where managers find themselves having to navigate loops of internal politics in order for them to remain relevant. Those who are best at understanding the dynamics of internal politics and playing it skillfully manage to progress.

Navigating internal politics and managing power struggles requires understanding individual and organisational behaviour and developing related competencies. However, many managers do not have either the appropriate knowledge, skills, or support to manage this sensitive topic.

Four actions leaders can take

Middle managers are hindered by the ecosystem around them. So how can they enact change when the system limits them? Consider these four leadership tips:

1. Scan the environment

It is easy for managers to get pulled into a company culture and default to “automatic” or “reactionary” behaviours or practices instead of choosing “conscious” or “proactive” behaviours. While it may sound cliche, do pause for a moment, observe, reflect and ask “what’s our organisational culture like and how am I responding”. Followed by “is this truly the most appropriate response or behaviour I can exhibit as (an open) manager or leader? If not, then what is the right thing to do in the moment?”

When there is a lack of psychological safety or clarity, people will default to what they know and take fewer risks.

Becoming a strategist and a leader can be incredibly difficult. It is uncomfortable. And in organisations where there is a lack of psychological safety or clarity, people will default to what they know and take fewer risks.

The process of pausing, and observing, helps managers avoid operating from a fixed mindset and defaulting to habitual thinking patterns. It allows them to zoom out and see how they fit into the system and what they bring – the strengths, values, skills and competencies, the opportunities for personal or professional development.

It can encourage them to develop new behaviours and open up to new ways of working, become more collaborative and receptive to feedback, take more risks, and mindfully challenge status-quo to create a positive impact in their organization.

2. Focus on what is within your control

It can be easy to feel locked into a whole ecosystem which is flawed and feel powerless to enact change. However, there are always points of control. Managers should focus on their teams and peers – and more immediate stakeholders – and consider how they can be engaged.

If a team is affected, invite them to be part of the solution-finding process – incorporating open decision making and proven open and agile practices. If work affects someone in another function, create transparency and open opportunities for collaboration, creating channels for feedback and sharing.

It is easy to focus only on the immediate stakeholders of a project. Creating and extending the visibility of work highlights the effort, increases motivation, and creates credibility for the team. Look for ways to showcase the work being done at regular intervals, and highlight the team’s value to create a sense of accomplishment and recognition.

3. Practice empathy at the team level

Culture is becoming a highly overused word with inconsistent understanding across the board. It is important to demystify what organisational culture means and how it impacts business outcomes, customer success, and employee satisfaction. It does not have to be a top-down narrative that is adopted universally: culture can be created at a team level. Managers have a huge influence on the subculture of their part of the organisation.

Managers can proactively opt to create a positive organisational culture. Adopting an open leadership mindset combined with open management practices evidently impacts key outcomes like customer satisfaction, employee engagement, innovation, and profitability.

For an employee, the organisation begins with their manager. Managers need to ask “What is the experience I am creating for my team?” Ask basic questions like “when do we want to meet?” and “how do we want to organize ourselves?” If there are bigger decisions to be made, consider how teams could be involved.

Now, more than ever, employees are looking for empathy from their executives, to be consulted on their future, not just to have a meaningful say in the decisions that affect them, but what is being decided on in the first place.

4. Build a wider sphere of influence

The ability to influence, at any level, is a key competency for middle managers. Yet this is not often a focus. As a leader, it is much less about micro-managing people and tasks and more about developing important strategic and interpersonal relationships with peers, stakeholders, customers, partners, and their own teams.

Developing the ability to influence and build trust will ensure managers have a seat at the table, and that they and their team are invited to important conversations, to participate in the decision-making process. Influence means becoming a thought leader. And it means having direct input into moving the positive organisational culture needle. Without influence, the frozen middle is unlikely to thaw. Managers need to focus on developing the competency to manage upwards as well as cross-functionally.

Open leadership is informed by…characteristics of transparency, inclusivity, community, collaboration, and adaptability.

Becoming an open leader

These light-touch, practical measures can quickly bring positive effects and may inspire executives to look more seriously at the longer-term benefits of becoming an open organisation. Organisations take years to develop their open cultures; but it is also true that time is not a luxury that businesses have. Open leadership is informed by the open organisation characteristics of transparency, inclusivity, community, collaboration, and adaptability. While these characteristics cannot be adopted overnight, they can help to develop a sustainable organisation that is nimble, agile, receptive to change, and enabled to navigate through complex times and challenges.

You can decide to embark on a journey of becoming an open manager and leader by incorporating and practicing these characteristics as part of your management and leadership style – to lead the way forward with confidence.

About the Author

Shabnoor Shah is the Open Leadership Global Lead and Executive Coach at Red Hat Open Innovation Labs, Transformation Services. As an Industrial-Organisational Psychology practitioner, she focuses on deriving and implementing psychological principles of individual, group, and organisational behaviours and mindsets and applies this knowledge to help address human and organisational problems in the context of organised work including leadership, performance, motivation, communication, professional satisfaction, safety, and organisational development and culture.

This article was originally published on The Enterprisers Project

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