Yesterday I asked the question “What is wrong with middle managers”? I’m not one to just point out problems. Here is my approach as both a manager and as an employee.
For middle managers, there are some very basic rules you can follow that can get you to reconnect with your teams.
Do you lead a large team of a dozen or more individuals? Address people by name and if you don’t know their name learn it! Your team members want to be recognized for their efforts. If they think you can’t even remember their name they will have zero confidence that they will get recognition for their work. That’s a fair assumption if you stop and think about it.
Use physical presence to make yourself more than an email sending entity. Get out of your office and go talk to people. Engage them in conversation, maybe even non-work related conversation. Show them you do not hold yourself above them. If you have remote employees take opportunities to talk to them on the phone even if they are not direct reports. When you visit their location make sure to drop by. Be a normal human being in front of them.
Listen. Middle managers tend to talk too much to subordinates. I suspect we’re trying to hard to show how knowledgeable we are. Be open to everything an employee is willing to tell you even if it is not something you want to hear. If they say something that upsets you, don’t react right away. Process it and think about what they are trying to say or why they feel that way. You can always engage them later. “Jim, yesterday you said the project manager didn’t consult you on requirements and you were frustrated because you’ve been working in the system for over a year. Can we discuss your concerns about the project?” Which leads to my last point.
Control your emotions. When we perceive challenges to our authority it is easy to act out of anger. Don’t. Anger is not a bad emotion but when not controlled it can lead to bad actions. Stop, think about what specifically made you angry, analyze it, then address it. There may be valid reasons why you were angry, but snap judgements in the heat of the moment often leads to bad results. Same thing with sadness, fear, enthusiasm, or any other emotions. Your teams need to believe you act with good reason and in good faith. That doesn’t mean you can never follow a whim but you have to set an example as a calm rational thinker even if it may not be your natural state.
Most of my advice as an employee is a variation on the above.
Make yourself known. When you do good work don’t be shy about self promoting. No need to be obnoxious, but when you beat a deadline, fix a nasty problem that no one else could, or come up with a new money making idea make sure your manager has it on the forefront of their mind. It is the only way to get kicked up the chain. When you get the opportunity to talk to your director, senior manager, or whatever your manager’s manager is called be sure to seize it. Keep discussions factual. If they go into problem areas (“I heard that feature was dropped from the next release”) don’t panic or make excuses. Have a fact based discussion but stay positive. (“Yes, it was. I found out it was more complex than we expected but I’ve corrected the issues and are confident it will be in the following release”).
Offer solutions where others offer problems. I hear this advice often and I can’t repeat it enough. Every manager, good or bad, wants to figure out how to solve problems. They usually know there is a problem and sometimes they don’t even care what caused it or who did it. They just want it fixed so the executive they report to will get off their case.
Be bold. Whether the middle manager in your org chain is an ambitious corporate climber or a hapless victim of the Peter/Dilbert Principle you will generate far more respect from them if you appear confident. Make eye contact but act casual. Not so much that you put your feet on their desk but enough so that you don’t look like a trapped animal about to bolt.
Most of all, learn their boundaries. How well do they take negative news? Do they need a little flattery to get them going? Do they like lots of details or do they want you to get straight to the point? Are they willing to ask for more information or are they the type who wants to look like they know everything? Get an idea of how they think and adjust accordingly.
Just remember that no matter how bad the company is about leadership training or choosing leaders, you can make your own situation better. Whether it’s as a leader or as an employee, you should do everything you can to position yourself for success.