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Stuck in the Middle

How we can help those we manage to get unstuck

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Reflecting on my twenty-year career, I’m surprised to notice that “stuck in the middle” remains a common theme and especially at this moment as we face a global pandemic.  For years I served in “middle management” with a robust team of colleagues in the field and a senior team above us. 

Now, on the other side in my coaching and consulting practice I work with rising stars who also find themselves stuck in the middle–empowered to lead but only so much. Limited by their organizational infrastructure.

“It’s your team – you know what’s best… but wait – that’s too out of the box – we don’t know how to support that.”

With uncertainty, inconsistent messaging, lack of direction and too many rising stars competing for too few leadership roles, we lose talent to burnout – to other organizations – and to other industries.

But what if senior-level managers were empowered to recognize, re-direct and help get these individuals unstuck.

More than a decade ago, as a city director for a national organization, I had my first encounter with this phenomenon. Our organization was new and our goals and strategies were endlessly changing. 

With emails flying at all hours of the day and night and calls from senior leadership triggering fear and anxiety, you can imagine the emotional toll. 

As a twenty-something, in an exciting new organization, poised for impact, I jumped every time a senior leader said, “jump.”  I couldn’t risk my job, I couldn’t risk my livelihood, so I did everything in my power to demonstrate my abilities, even when I felt in over my head. 

I responded to emails at 2 a.m. I  took phone calls from my superiors during family celebrations while trying to protect the team I managed from the instability at the top. I was stuck in the middle — all I wanted was a clear direction. All I wanted was to do good work. All I wanted was to make an impact without worrying about what strange new rule or policy was coming down next.

I’m not alone in this experience. Though the characters have changed and our world in a different place, this story has been recounted time and time again by the leaders that I coach. 

“I’m not capable of leading;”  “I’m always trying to communicate with my staff, but I get mixed messages from my supervisors;” “I feel like I am always defending decisions that I don’t have any say in.” 

I reflect often on the many times I was stuck in the middle. Desperate for someone to help me get unstuck.

How can we shift this paradigm?  What would it look like to help our staff get unstuck, especially during these times? 

For middle managers and organizational leaders, here’s a place to start:

Recognize that this is happening in your organization.

It’s nothing personal – there’s no need to be defensive. If you don’t have a plan to build a resilient ecosystem through intentional intervention at all levels, It’s inevitable.

Enhance the meaning of the work.  Although the strategies and goals might not always be clear as an organization evolves, you can help your staff connect meaningfully with the vision and mission of the work.  Start with the big picture and invite them to articulate how they will contribute to achieving the mission.

Enable autonomy.  Encourage staff members to make their own decisions to support their teams/stakeholders.  Give them parameters for when leadership should be looped in.

Express confidence and vulnerability.  Share with your team that you believe in their leadership, skills and abilities.  Demonstrate that you will be there for them when they make mistakes. Then actually be there. Don’t focus on the outcome, focus on the effort – then work together to solve the problem.  Be vulnerable–you are human too. 

Involve the team in decision making.  There will always be senior-level decisions. How can you involve staff in other ways?  Consider soliciting their input before a decision is made and inviting them to weigh in regularly.

Respect boundaries.  Refrain from communicating with staff during non-traditional business hours, unless it is genuinely urgent.  Constant and/or unpredictable communication can cause alarm and uncertainty among your team. Your team members WILL check email before they go to bed and first thing when they wake up – consider saving your drafts and sending your messages during normal business hours.

By empowering your team and helping them feel less stuck in the middle, you foster a more resilient, more adaptable and more productive organization.

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