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Middle management - where sparring is a necessity and a scarce resource

Middle managers have a palpable and often unanswered need for sparring to bring structure to a complex day-to-day, to integrate multiple – often conflicting – stakeholder views, to validate ideas and solutions for multi-faceted problems, to translate the strategic into the operational. Yet, only few can count on the availability of their bosses. Maybe you can relate. If so, here are six systematic steps to tackle the lack of sparring. While reading, you will also find out, what's with the hamburger ...

The innate challenge of middle management

Middle management is like the patty in a hamburger – squeezed by top and bottom buns.

It’s the airbag to an organization – unfolding its’ potential when tackled left, right and center.

Managing relationships at this middle layer is a threefold task, requiring middle managers to act as subordinate, equal, and superior:

1) upward, they relate to their bosses as subordinates—they take orders.

2) downward, they relate to their teams as superiors—they give orders.

3) laterally, they often relate to peers in the organization as equals.

Managing this set of relationships and applying different interaction power styles is demanding. It is comparable to a soccer player having to excel simultaneously in dribbling, shooting and passing. The middle manager must be able to not only manage all three relationships but also to shift swiftly and frequently from one to another.

Middle managers receive abstract guidance from superiors in the form of goals which must be translated into concrete action. Hence, middle management assumes the bilingual role of translating the superior’s strategic language (e.g. of more earnings per share, of meeting the budget, of more agility or more disruptive innovation) into the operational language of subordinates.

As one HBR article (E. Anicich & J.Hirsch, 2017) put it: “By virtue of their structural positions, they (middle managers) are simultaneously the victims and the carriers of change.”

What makes things even more complicated

In Feb 2020 – shortly before the pandemic, Simon Sinek called middle management “the hardest job”. The prevailing crisis staged in today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) only potentiated the forces and dynamisms impacting middle management. Instantly and like a magnifier, COVID-19 augmented individual responsibilities. It increased complexity and urgency with which decisions needed to be made, teams informed, coordinated, led, motivated and developed from a distance. All whilst rethinking and adapting existing business models, whilst addressing customers differently, whilst securing production and shipment, whilst implementing new work and agile practices, whilst…

Again, middle management was left to understand and translate.

The problem at hand

In my work and interaction with middle managers of different industries, I learned that one continuous but increasing challenge is the lack of candid, truthful and unbiased sparring. And ever more so since COVID-19 hit us and spontaneous face-to-face meetings became rare.

What I hear from clients is “my manager cannot make time to brainstorm”, “my manager is not willing/ competent to provide the right level of feedback to my ideas”, “I have been a strong performer for years, I know my business and my manager fully trusts me to self-manage, yet I do want some sort of input to know my thinking is on track.”

Middle managers have a palpable need for sparring to bring structure to a complex day-to-day, to integrate relevant stakeholder views, to validate ideas and solutions for multi-faceted problems, to translate the strategic into the operational.

The solution - 6 steps to tackle the lack of sparring systematically

The simple answer to a need for sparring is : Lead yourself.

Here is how.

Ensure you understood the order/task correctly.

One root cause for unaligned actions and goals is the misunderstanding or misinterpretation regarding the task at hand. Utilize your superior to extensively and profoundly clarify the assigned task by asking open-ended and probing questions. Take time to prepare for this exchange.

Put your own head around the task first.

Before reaching out to others get acquainted with the (new) topic or task by investigating inside and outside the company, e.g. by (informally) interviewing colleagues and other experts, by reading best practices or similar case studies.

Sketch your net of knowledge: What do you know about the problem at hand? What do you still need to understand or find out? What current and company specific obstacles did you identify around the task? What strength or resources can you draw from or rely on? What past experiences qualify you to solve the task successfully?

Reserve specific time slots for this in your agenda.

Aim for maximal diversity.

Reflect how to increase variety in expertise, thoughts and perspectives regarding the task at hand. To maximize diversity, you want to include versatile thinking, different educational or professional backgrounds, diverse personalities and functional areas. Also, you want to incorporate stakeholders with distinctive professional agendas and goals.

Become aware of your sparring needs.

What specifically is it that you would like from someone else? Are you in need of open brainstorming, pressure testing of existing ideas or models, co-creation? Do you need allies to defend your ideas? Do you need sense checking? All of the above?

Identify partners you trust and be vocal about what you need from them.

Based on your different sparring needs, make a list of potential aids from inside or outside the organization. You can find sparring partners in peers from your own or other functional areas / departments / regions. It could be a more senior mentor or expert (who is not your boss, but willing to support). Depending on the topic or task, you could also consider your own team as sparring partner or sounding board. External coaches and consultants usually offer a neutral perspective and can provide insights and good practices from other companies or industries.

Don’t be shy to reach out. I bet you, most colleagues will be glad to assist.

Schedule the sparring.

It is not advisable to go with the flow and wait for a suitable moment to catch someone in the coffee corner. Rather put time slots into the agenda of those involved. The threshold for the other person to accept is lower if you start with a one-hour meeting instead of four. Ensure, the meeting has a clear agenda and does end in time – to appreciate the time someone else has freed up and dedicated on your issue.

I am sure some of the mentioned points sound obvious.

Sometimes, stating the obvious helps.


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