Managing in the middle

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I have certainly found myself in middle management positions before.  I have been ‘the boss’ for 20 years, so for a while I have avoided some of these challenges.  That said, I can often find myself occupying that difficult position of balancing the needs of a client with those of a team member.  And I have recent memories of when having my own middle management team didn’t work so well.

Whatever your position it can often feel one is caught in the middle, that space between competing agendas and needs.  It can be defined by your place in an organisation’s structure, or in a communication chain, or when you are working to two different agendas.  The nightmares commonly associated with being a middle manager are those around being caught in the in-between, and trying to keep everyone happy at all times.  This usually results in you feeling everyone is unhappy all of the time.  The trouble is the role of the middle manager is one that is frequently under-valued by those up the chain and those down it.  It can feel like a thankless task, with many pitfalls and none of the freedoms of lower tiers, nor the perceived glamour and trappings of being in charge.  It can be a lonely place being a middle manager at the staff Christmas party.

But so many of us are middle managers, and we need to value, celebrate and embrace this important role.  And not view it as a stepping stone, or less important or valuable than the top job.  Because middle management is extremely important to any organisation.  If middle management fails, it is more likely the organisation is or will in the future.  So middle managers are the secret to success and I think would benefit from greater value, and some creative and exciting reinvention.  Here are some survival tips:

  1. Be a great listener. You need to listen to those above and those below you – because everyone relies upon you to share and represent their thoughts, needs and wants on their behalf.
  2. You need to be a great communicator – because you are the conduit or channel of messaging up and down. You need to share information in ways adapted to different audiences, and be able to motivate action in the process.
  3. You are key to change management – you need to know the processes for making change happen, and the emotional responses people have to it. Then match your actions to the stage people are at.  Sounds simple, but it isn’t.
  4. Be confident enough to ‘own’ your messages and to not blame colleagues or leadership when things get tricky. Creating false enemies will only come back and bite you later.  Instead, try to support everyone to see things from their points of view.
  5. Hold your boundaries – be confident in the middle, and make sure everyone appreciates that is where you are. If leadership starts to feel more like your allegiances are downward focused, or colleagues think the opposite, it could be the recipe for many problems.  Stick your flag in the middle ground, be consistent, clear, principled, and loyal to all.
  6. Be able to mediate – once you have supported everyone to consider different viewpoints, use mediation and problem solving techniques to ensure everyone feels acknowledged, listened to, understood, and part of the future direction.

Sounds like a lot of hard work, but an exciting and essential role when you think about it.

A version of this blog was first published in Teach Early Years Magazine.

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