Mid-Management – Engagement’s Final Frontier

Evolving Leadership

We should point out that transforming our mid-managers into strategic, thinking, connective professionals will require full accountability on both sides of the fence. Mid-managers will have to demonstrate an almost-hair-raising commitment to change in order to let go of the “crazed worker” persona who measures all value by constant activity.

In order to do that, they will have to reclaim their time. Among the many managers I have worked with, I have often observed that they take on everything with a survival-mode vengeance, but often lack priorities in how to use their time and to get others to help them where appropriate. Many managers are in such a trance that time is used the same way high fructose corn syrup is used in the American diet as nourishment. We just keep stuffing more in.

We need to begin by helping mid-managers reclaim their time. It is so necessary to prioritize what we do with our time in ways that create the greatest value. It’s important to begin each day by asking questions that help us define who most needs our attention and what we can do to move forward strategically, analyzing what kind of support would be most helpful to develop, and taking the time to truly identify how we want to use our time. For the mid-manager who seeks upward mobility, we need to make it clear that the only way this will happen is if they engage in the kind of learning that helps them move from activity to influence, and from flailing to the masterful ownership of their time.

This kind of professional tribe derives extraordinary value through consistent self-inquiry and mentoring. I find that it takes years to produce change when we simply tell someone that they must change.

Transformation is far more rapid when we ask people the questions that connect them with the life they want to lead. Give them the questions that will help them connect with the habitual behaviors and beliefs that are keeping them stuck in the middle.

A few examples:

  • Who most needs my attention and inspiration?
  • What is the most critical problem to solve today?
  • What is today’s ideal blend of tactical and strategic work?
  • What am I being asked to do that offers little value to the organization?
  • How can I get rid of these useless, meaningless tasks?
  • Which stakeholder needs my attention?
  • Who deserves my praise today?
  • What can I do to sell my ideas and solutions?
  • How can I best take care of myself?
  • How can I grow my support system?

This takes five minutes a day and it establishes priorities before the onslaught begins.

One of the real wedges against creating emotionally engaging mid-managers is the common practice of asking them to do work that doesn’t advance the cause of the organization. A senior executive asks for reports and projects that are only about checking old boxes or covering one’s behind. They are called into meetings that drone on and on without any real progress to show for it. Learning how to masterfully turn this work away can be nothing short of transformational. A few examples of taking a stand for use of time help us envision a better future:

“I would be happy to do this report, but I need you to know that if I do this the deadline for finishing your client fulfillment project can’t be met. Can we discuss some alternative scenarios?”

“I would love to help you, but I’m on a critical project for the president. Who else can we find to help you?”

Some will say that they could never respond to their boss like that. Well, then this is a good time to start learning how to do that. Initially, you might have trouble with the energetic and emotional feel behind the words. Smile warmly and take a deep breath. You want the persona of someone who is there to contribute, rather than someone who is upset or uncertain.

CEOs could improve many cultures by making it clear that needless reports, superficial projects, and other wastes of time are to be set aside. Let everyone know that supervisors and managers are free to discuss the value of a project, to work with their superior in defining if it is really necessary, and if they are loaded up with work, to identify another colleagues to take on the project.

In our leadership programs, it has become clear that many people are afraid to say anything that appears to be a message of “no” in environments in which mid-managers are at risk. Once again, making individual and organization behavioral changes can only come out of collective responsibility. But the payoff, if we can do this, will be managers who are awake, energized, enthused, and fully present. If you are simply surviving by pushing them to work faster, technology is either available now or on its way that can help do that for you. The machinelike worker is rapidly becoming a thing of the past and organizations that don’t see this are squandering one of the great opportunities in The Workplace Engagement Solution.

Train Your Managers

We need to give extra support to managers during our culture revolution. Our managers hold the biggest key to the quality of relationships with customers and frontline employees. Managers execute policy, solve emerging problems, and influence brand ambassadorship in substantial ways. If an organization doesn’t get this, there may be big trouble ahead. Bad stuff can happen. Whenever we move, the most painful portion of that move tends to be the cable company. Two years ago, we were changing locations with the same cable company, but it took four days, almost five hours of phone calls, and two visits to the local branch office to make the transition. At each step of the service change, someone wasn’t paying attention, which led to interrupted service and surreal losses of time, all at the hands of a staff that seemed to be counting the minutes until they could go home. This level of disengagement is so enormous that we had factored in the insanity to our overall move.

It seems that when CEOs come to the conclusion they have a captive market and their business is a commodity, employees and managers alike are also treated like commodities, where work is “just a job” with no value to their ability to connect because they are more like machines. When this notion moves into knowledge-based companies, the need for engaged managers reaches epic proportions. To that end, Wharton management professor Ethan Mollick has a message: “Pay closer attention to your middle managers. They have a greater impact on company performance than almost any other part of the organization.”3

His studies point out that mid-managers contribute far more to the bottom line than the innovators, who knowledge- and technology driven companies tend to revere. The best of the mid-managers are not just good in one organization; they are good in a wide variety of settings. This is because the best mid-managers have the interpersonal skills and discipline that impact all stakeholders in positive ways. The ones who do not have the skills of high engagement and the ability to change tend to remain glued in one place, hoping the human resources “death angel” has others to visit. But the managers with highly portable skills will leave if we don’t give them the value and attention they deserve.

Our best and brightest workers are gone before many of us have come up with effective strategies for retaining them during upheaval. Mid-managers are often already so overwhelmed, they become less effective with retention during these difficult times. Stop taking your mid-managers for granted. Teach them how to take better care of themselves. Give them the change and engagement skills, and never treat their development as remedial. Provide it to them because they deserve it. If they are starved for attention, correct the problem by giving them your attention. Look them in the eye. Many of them are your hardest workers. Many of them were happy with the recognition of that first promotion. Many are disenchanted because we stopped paying attention. We stopped giving them what they most needed: nourishment, respect, and kindness. They watch technology threaten their jobs, but we forgot how valuable they were the moment we assumed they could or would not change. We thought of them as the workhorses down the hall and forgot the truth. They need what we need. This is the truth and, as Joe Klass famously once said, “The truth will set you free, but first, it will probably piss you off.”4

Love your managers back to wakefulness and many will become your most effective change agents. If we want the best from our workplace, this is our collective responsibility. Some mid-managers will respond to development with enthusiasm and gratitude. Some will have enthusiasm and gratitude after they experience the work. Some will have to leave because the mind blocks are so deep, they cannot hear you. One of my great joys is to visit with an intact team that has just gone through our program. The moment I walk in the door, the energy is different, the enthusiasm is palpable, and the relationships transformed. As we invest the needed energy and development in our mid-managers, this type of experience will become the norm.

In moving forward with The Workplace Engagement Solution, make mid-managers your priority. Remember that they touch everything. And, even if they leave, remember that tomorrow’s employer will not be evaluated on how much they paid employees, but rather they will be judged by how much they grew them while they were there.

Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from THE WORKPLACE ENGAGEMENT SOLUTION © 2017 David Harder.  Published by Career Press, Wayne, NJ.  All rights reserved



David Harder
David Harder
DAVID founded Inspired Work in 1990, which has helped over 42,000 professionals transform their relationship towards work. Individuals from all walks of life attend Inspired Work’s public programs to launch new careers, new business or to become more successful in their existing role. He views work as a profound opportunity to become more fulfilled, contributive and effective. Mr. Harder’s leadership, employee engagement, executive development and social networking programs are used in a wide variety of organizations including The Walt Disney Company, HBO, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Loyola Marymount University, University of Southern California, The United Church of Religious Science, Morgan Stanley, and many others. Inspired Work’s leadership programs, career development and team building programs produce some of the worlds most outstanding satisfaction numbers in any business: 92.6% out of a hundred. David has appeared on many business and human-interest programs including CNN, KTLA News, KFWB News and Business News Network. David’s book, new book, The Workplace Engagement Solution (Career Press) offers an entire “crack-the-code” approach to engagement.

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  1. Really good points. And like to add that Middle Management is where the the rubber hits the road. Executives set the direction – Middle Management makes it happen. You can swap out executives and the company will still keep humming. You swap out anyone from middle management and the company can easily crash and burn.

    There are many examples where business performed poorly from manipulating and downsizing their middle management. I found myself saying way too much “To be a better runner you better cut off your dead weight. Let’s start with one of your legs.”