The curse of middle management: How to manage everyone wanting a piece of you

I work with a lot of managers – from first-time managers to experienced senior executives. I’ve also had several management and leadership roles myself.

And there is no doubt in my mind that the toughest gig is that of the middle manager.

Not quite at the top of the tree in management terms, and not one of the troops – middle management can be a bit of a no-man’s land (or no-woman’s land 😉 ).

When they’re working at their best, middle managers can be the oil that greases the wheel of organisational performance. At their worst, they can be a perma frost – causing or exacerbating friction between staff and board-level leadership.

When I develop managers – whether through coaching, mentoring or training – the biggest thing I find is that they feel overwhelmed. Primarily because they’re getting it from all directions.

So, how can you stop the deluge of requests and pulls on your time? These tips will help:

Know your priorities

Too many managers I work with are at the mercy of other people’s priorities and emergencies.

One approach that I used when I was a middle manager was having three themes – ‘People’, ‘Strategy’ and ‘Operations’. I then brain dumped every single thing I needed to do and put them under the relevant headings. Then it was a case of assigning priority levels to these. See a previous post to help you do this.

Then, on a weekly basis, I’d identify the top priorities for the coming week and schedule in the work to do in my diary. This made it far less likely that my diary would be dominated by meetings (most of which were unnecessary).

By only focusing on the most important priorities, I was able to successfully hold down three management roles at the same time and not go crazy!

This approach is something that managers I’ve worked with have used successfully time and time again. Why not try it for yourself?

Know yourself

I really don’t think you can be a successful manager in today’s world without having a support team around yourself. That means:

  • Undertaking 360-degree feedback to assess how other people see you: Speak to your HR team or manager to see if your organisation has 360 in place. If not, you can do it yourself in conjunction with your manager by asking ‘What do I do well?’, ‘What do I do less well?’ and ‘What do I need to start doing differently?’If you have a coach or mentor then you could do the 360 with them, which is an approach I’ve taken with some management clients.
  • Getting yourself a coach and/or a mentor: I’ve said this so many times in other posts but you know what? I’m going to say it again. A coach or mentor can be invaluable for middle managers in particular. They can help you identify and work through blind spots and behaviour that see you getting in your own way. More than anything it can be akin to an oxygen tank – a place where you can breathe, think and come out re-energised and re-focused.
  • Being part of an action learning set: Think of this as a form of coaching, albeit with a group of six or so other managers. Most action learning sets are facilitated (or at least start off with a facilitator). One action learning set I’m working with are now ready to go it alone. They’ve learned the action learning process and can continue to work together, jointly solving management problems in a safe, non-judgemental environment.

Some middle managers find it difficult to convince their boss to find the money for a coach. This is particularly the case with some of my public sector clients. The Association for Coaching have provided this useful guide to calculating the return on investment for coaching.

Know your staff

It never fails to surprise me when I come across some managers who really know very little, if anything, about their staff. Yet, for you to understand who to push back on and how, you need to understand what motivates and demotivates each individual.

For example, you might have a member of staff who needs to check absolutely everything with you before taking action. This will be adding to your already pressurised diary and time.

To push back and change their behaviour, you need to take the the time to understand more about them.

What is important to them? What worries them most at work? What kind of work do they like? Not like? etc. Only by taking the time to understand this, can you hope to help them break some of the unhelpful ways of working.

There is also a link between this and your own behaviour. You might, just might, be exhibiting micromanagement behaviours which is having a knock-on effect on your team.

As well as individuals, developing an understanding of the team as a whole is also important. Things like team building can be a great way to develop helpful ways of working. It’s an opportunity to share what’s important to you and how you like to work, as well as hear from your team about how to get the best out of them.

Know your boss

Not managing upwards is another biggie that can impact middle managers.

The same rules apply as for knowing your staff. Find out what’s important to your boss, how they like things done, what quality means to them.

I’ve seen some managers move from one boss to another but not change their approach. They continue to work in the way their previous boss liked, not realising that their new boss likes to work in a completely different way.

If you’ve got a new boss, or even if you’ve worked with yours for a while, it can be really helpful to have a discussion about how you each like to work. Getting clarity on ‘the rules’ is important if you’re to manage your time and workload effectively.

And if your boss is a micromanager, which is one of the things causing your excessive workload and late nights, then here are some tips to help you.

Amplify understanding and ask questions

Failure to communicate clearly can impact a middle manager’s time and workload. By assuming understanding (your own, your staff) you may end up going down the wrong path. This can lead to re-work, duplication of effort, late delivery etc.

Asking questions is essential.

As is playing back what has been heard. Whether that’s you playing back to the requester (e.g. your boss) what you’ve understood they’re asking for; or whether you ask a member of staff to play back to you what they’ve understood you’ve asked them to do.

Spending a bit of time upfront clarifying understanding can save you time down the road.

What things do you do to be an effective manager? Why not share your own tips in the comments box so other followers can benefit from your experience?


Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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