The Middle Manager's Double-Bind

McKenzie's snake reef knot

One of the subtle but standout moments in the movie "Margin Call" occurs when a certain middle manager gets fired.

The manager had been working in-scope, "keeping the train running on time."And above and beyond, sounding an alarm about the equivalent of a bomb on the train tracks ahead.
 Middle management doesn't divert trains. The alert was ignored.

It was only when a relatively new recruit saw the bomb and sounded the alarm that leadership sat up and paid attention.

This is the double-bind of the middle manager - that they should not lead, ever:

* Logically, based on their decades of experience implementing initiative after initiative, they should be responsible for alerting the organization that a plan will likely fail.
 * Yet paradoxically, their job is to "magically" make staff execute on those impossible plans.

Every leader has the fantasy that they are Captain Piccard in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and it is so fun for them when they can lift their hand and point their finger at the manager and utter those famous words: "Make it so."

A related double-bind has to do with staff - that they should keep people "under control":
 * Logically, if a manager's job is to obtain the most productivity out of a diverse staff that includes new recruits and more seasoned employees, they should be able to encourage employees to do things in unique, innovative ways that save time and money

* Yet paradoxically, the middle manager's job is to "magically" make these diverse people conform to rules that at times make no sense, which leads employees to disengage and lose morale, which in turn forces managers to put in place measures that detract from productivity (such as monitoring)
 Oddly, the very thing they are supposed to discourage (their staff coloring outside the established lines) sometimes ends up praised and rewarded when senior leaders become aware of it, as occurred in "Margin Call."

Also quite upsettingly, when a new-ish employee does think innovatively, he or she is lauded while the manager would have been chided for not sticking to the game plan.

All of this is terrible stuff, from a branding perspective.

It is the job of a brand to deliver the perception of premium value to a customer who passionately prefers it above all other choices.

The only way to do this is through insanely motivated employees. Not robots!

Insanely motivated employees cannot exist if we continue to cast the middle manager's role as though we were still living in factory times.

So for the sake of all our brands, it is time to get rid of three incorrect assumptions right now:
* The assumption that "real work" has to do with apportioning budgets, setting schedules, and that relationship work is "natural" and therefore "not real"
 * The assumption that managers inherently have a negative relationship with employees who don't naturally want to work, but must somehow be "incentivized," not to mention "monitored," "rewarded," and even "contained" (and who of course want the manager's job)
 * The assumption that the manager does not bring any inherent strategic value to the table, but must rather be like Silly Putty, reflecting blandly whatever priorities the current leader articulates

 Let's replace them with the following axioms:

* Relationship work is THE MOST IMPORTANT work there is, it is valuable, and it requires training and skill.

* The job of a manager is to correctly identify, bring forth, and harmonize the talents of every individual on the team, and to encourage them to do things more innovatively.

* The manager holds a vast repository of institutional knowledge in his or her brain that should be tapped at every opportunity by senior leadership, who more often than not are change agents that tend to change jobs and so have a superficial understanding of the culture in which they operate.

We are moving toward times when producing economic value and actually having values - as human beings, as people - are going to converge. Corporate social responsibility is rapidly becoming wedded to buying choices and therefore brand value.

How companies treat their employees is part of the way they make money. (For years now in marketing circles there has been talk about the "fifth P" - adding "people" to "product, price, promotion, and place.") What we must do now is engage in a conversation about the critical role of the middle manager, who brings their energies together.

While it is valid to examine corporate expectations of this role in the "new workplace," we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, let's take apart the double-bind and put it back together more logically. Leverage their vast experience to inform strategy. And more importantly, pay them for having that innate sixth sense about how best to draw out people's talent at work, and form individuals into teams that can effectively work together.

A true manager is not the one who keeps the trains running on time. Rather he or she is the one who brings flowers to the hospital bed of the train employee who broke their leg the other day. Trying to avoid hitting that bomb on the tracks by slamming the brakes down really hard.

Have a good day, and a good weekend everyone - and good luck!


Photo by Vivian Evans via Flickr.

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