Headknocking, Brick Walls?and What's a Manager to Do?

Headknocking, Brick Walls? and What's a Manager to Do?

May 2004

It's great to see many companies are now acknowledging that the old, traditional methods of management are not effective and they are modernizing their strategies and taking steps to improve employee morale, and therefore productivity. CEOs are taking an active interest because they have to and senior managements all over the world are issuing new guidelines and goals to their middle management to initiate.

CEOs and senior management accept that low morale among their workforce means low productivity, which in turn, means low profits. Smart companies are hiring Coaches and Consultants to turn this around - everyone wants a happy workforce with improved productivity and profits. Some companies are trying other methods. But whatever method is being used, it still falls on Middle Management's shoulders to implement. They are in a unique position to see what isn't working, what won't work, why it isn't or won't work, and what adjustments could and should be made that would make it work.

Sadly, for some of them, their senior management, CEOs and Boards of Directors don't listen. Sometimes, when a middle manager tries to express his view about a new strategy or goal, senior management can sometimes close their ears. After all, what would this middle manager know? If he was so smart, he'd be "one of us". They may listen just to humor him, but they have their plan of action, and really, they just want him to carry out orders and tow the line.

From Top To Bottom
If the bottom line employee is the one getting his or her hands dirty, it's middle management who has the task of instructing and overseeing the way in which their hands are dirtied. They receive their instructions from those at the top, which is not always the best place to be if you want a clear understanding of what is happening at ground level. Middle Managers who attempt to enlighten them often find themselves doing the equivalent of banging their head against a brick wall.

Too often they are told they are not in a position to "know", and to just do as they are told, which is a shame, really, because they ARE in a position to know. They may not know what plans are discussed in the boardroom, but they do know whether the plan is working or has a hope to work in real life, or at the very least, be able to identify trouble spots where some tweaking of plans would be ideal.

It is frustrating for middle managers when their senior management, the CEO, and the Board members, expect them to carry out reforms and oversee changes that are designed to make improvements, but may be misguided and miss their mark.

So, does the middle manager assertively argue with his senior management and risk his or her position and possibly jeopardize his own career goals within the organization? Nobody wants to rock the boat if it means their job is on the line, or they'll be ostracized, even if they know they could save the company thousands in mis-spent dollars on initiatives which are poorly designed. And there are those in senior management who simply don't want to be "shown up" by a lower level manager who may just know 'better' than they do? so reports and advice are not passed on. Middle Managers are humored and sent on their way.

What can a middle Manager do in this situation? When he has an idea he knows will work better, but his own senior management won't even do him the honor of hearing it? He knows the instructions he's been given are going to be a waste of time, mostly his time, and there isn't anything he can do about it because those who make the decisions higher up, simply don't want to listen.

This brick wall is familiar to many Managers. They're too scared to speak up too loudly because their family's welfare and the family home (mortgage) are often riding on his/her permanent paycheck arriving each month. He can't afford to rock any boats. Meanwhile, his own boat is sinking and the Captain has left the ship to play golf.

To Rock Or Not To Rock that Boat
So off they go to try and achieve their set goals and unable to achieve them successfully, yet powerless to do anything about it. The system or the senior level of management has let them down. And when this happens time and time again, it is a very demoralizing experience for the Manager involved.

So, what can a Manager do? There are courses of action one can take, some of which involve jumping off the deep end with their eyes closed - a leap of faith, and some which are just plain old common sense approaches.

  1. A Manager can continue to do what is always done and the organization will not achieve anything worthwhile. If you are the type of Manager who doesn't particularly care, just so long as one gets his/her pay check each month, then there isn't a problem for you.
  2. If you are the type of middle Manager who does care and who is getting a headache from the way the system operates, you can lay it on the line with your senior Management and just tell them like it is - politely, of course. If you strongly believe doing this would be detrimental to your career within the company, then you need to think carefully about this first. Feel your way; find a pair of friendly ears - someone willing to listen to you and help you champion your case. If not, is your career really likely to suffer, and if it is, can you live with that or do you have a contingency plan?
  3. If you are really fed up, whether you decide to be assertive and speak up or not, maybe you should speak to a Career Coach or look for a new job. If your income is the sole income that your family depends on, maybe you should also start putting some aside for the possible eventuation that one day, you may be out of a job and need several months worth of savings to live on until you find new employment. If you never need to use these funds, the little nest egg you've saved will always come in handy for other things.
  4. Maybe you can put it in a report and present it if a verbal presentation is out of the question. Or maybe you can organize a private chat with an influential senior level Manager, or the CEO, and have a heart to heart. Maybe the problem is with your own immediate manager. That's a common scenario. You could try providing your immediate manager with a written report and copy it in to the CEO, and that way, whether your own manager is dismissive or not, you know the CEO is finally going to hear/read what you have to say.
  5. Don't just criticize any goals or plans or instructions that have been handed down for you to carry out without providing sound reasons and examples of why it doesn't work, or won't work, and perhaps hasn't worked in the past. List alternative courses of action that you believe will work and ask for permission to try them. Where possible, show evidence of where and how your suggestions have worked and why they will work in your current situation. Show the organization the benefit to them of implementing YOUR strategies rather than the ones they have designed. And don't dismiss the possibility that maybe senior management does know something you don't, and maybe once they enlighten you, you will feel differently about everything!
  6. When there are those who admire managers who are willing to take risks. But it's a fine line between showing initiative and insubordination. To deliberately disregard a directive from your own senior manager and implement your own plan which you believe will work (and his won't) takes more than just courage. If you are wrong, your job and your reputation are on the line. Of course, if you are wildly successful, even the CEO will sing your praises (although there will always be some slight concern about your willingness to tow the line!)

In some organizations, middle management are not expected to make certain 'executive' decisions and their level of authority and responsibility is low. They are just a link in the chain of command. Some managers are happy to be here - they can safely 'pass the buck' upline. Many managers at this level are too scared to make decisions or instigate their ideas for change for fear of negative repercussions in the form of losing one's job, or chances for promotion.

Senior Management...Listen Up!
The trouble has always been, and continues to be, that in some very large organizations, senior level management are too far removed from the real day-to-day operations to know what is going on, let alone what will and will not work. When something fails, rather than admit the plan was bad, blame is laid at the middle Manager's feet. It must be his fault - couldn't possibly be our excellent plan!

This situation can occur in both large and small organizations. It occurs in very large organizations, because usually a more authoritarian style of management tends to be used. In this situation, middle managers are expected to do as they are told and not question their superiors. However, larger organizations who train their managers in a more participative style of management and who practice open communication and the expression of ideas are happy to find this system works.

It occurs in smaller companies because unlike the larger companies who can at least afford to hire experts to help them, smaller companies rely on their existing resources and their own board of directors. On the plus side, smaller companies find it easier to adopt a team spirit and engage in teamwork - which involves the middle manager, naturally, but all is not necessarily plain sailing if there are personality clashes or the company has limited funds to bring in outside experts and instead, consider themselves to be the experts.

Senior level management needs to take more notice of the Managers below them. Listen to them and their suggestions; include them at your round-table discussions and forward planning sessions. It may save your company thousands of wasted hours and dollars, and if nothing else, will improve your middle management's morale and their own level of productivity!

Terri Levine MCC, PCC, MS, CCC-SLP is CEO of Coaching Instruction, a Master Certified Coach, Public Speaker, and Author of "Stop Managing, Start Coaching", "Work Yourself Happy", "Coaching for an Extraordinary Life", and "Create Your Ideal Body. Contact via the website http://www.terrilevine.com or call: 215-699-4949.

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