Your employees and/or team leaders are increasingly focusing on their job to be meaningful and relevant. They are asking questions regarding their objectives and the connection between objectives and their tasks. And they expect you to be able to provide them with an answer. They want flexibility in their workplace, e.g. flexible work hours, home offices, a high degree of autonomy, etc. They want professional development as well as time for reflection and knowledge-sharing.
None of these demands are unreasonable. On the contrary. Anything else would be unnatural in a modern-day company or public organisation. In other words, you have various stakeholders – superiors, peers and any subordinate leaders and employees – making various demands on you. When their expectations pull in opposite directions, you may find that they can be challenging to handle for you in your role as middle manager.
Based on our experience from many projects in both public and private organisations, we have defined some advice for you when you have to handle the dilemma that divergent expectations create for most middle managers. This is what we call the cross pressure of the middle manager. This cross pressure can be handled with the following six pieces of advice:
- Put yourself in the driver’s seat of your leadership
- Focus on your core tasks and success criteria
- Understand your work processes
- Create transparency in your core processes and performance
- Realise benefits
- Create commitment
1. PUT YOURSELF IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT OF YOUR LEADERSHIP
The cross pressure is an unavoidable part of your everyday as a middle manager, and there are two ways you can choose to handle it. One is the passive way in which you resignedly accept that those are the conditions for a middle manager, and that you have no way to change your workday. You are basically on autopilot and locked in on a fixed perspective on your environment, behaviour and opportunities for action.
The other way (and take a guess which one we recommend) is to take a more active role. Do something about those conditions that you are able to influence. Avoid spending too much energy on aspects that you cannot influence. Instead, spend your energy on taking charge of affairs. As this happens, you will find that you will increasingly be able to lighten the cross pressure, and that you can actually use it actively to extend your managerial scope for action.
You are probably familiar with the great feeling of having proactively handled the cross pressure. It gives you energy and fighting spirit, and it may suddenly feel like you are in the driver’s seat. And let’s face it: it’s just more fun to be in that seat than not. Our recommendation is therefore to acknowledge that the cross pressure is part of the game for you in your role as middle manager, and that you need to navigate it actively. It is difficult and challenging, but you will find that it pays off.
2. FOCUS ON YOUR CORE TASKS AND SUCCESS CRITERIA
Contradictory expectations from your environment sometimes mean that there are so many agen-das and so much complexity that you end up forgetting what your raison d’être is, and what is important.
It is important that you make sure that there is a common understand and acceptance of what your core tasks are. Who are you to deliver to (customer, citizen or company)? What are your success criteria? If you succeed in this task in cooperation with your superior and your employees, you will achieve better and more engaging dialogues on your task priorities going forward.
You will gain more support and respect for future decisions because you all agree on what matters. You will find that you spend far less non-constructive energy on discussing priorities during your workday. You will even be spending less time on tasks that are not “core”.
Several of your success criteria will be a given or defined by others. This is not a problem. To en-sure ownership of these success criteria, we recommend that you also involve your employees in defining a number of team-specific targets that you find important for the team’s development. You may decide on professional development and knowledge-sharing as critical focal points for your future success and consequently define relevant targets related to these focal points. It is our expe-rience that this strengthens your employees’ feeling that these are “our success criteria and targets” that we work on achieving together.
3. UNDERSTAND YOUR WORK PROCESSES
It is essential that you are familiar with the work processes within your area of responsibility and that you know how they are connected to other processes across the company or organisation. How else will you be able to help your employees ensure a good workday?
It is therefore necessary for you to spend time with your team leaders and/or employees “on the floor” in order to understand the work processes in your team. You will gain insight, and they will find that you are able to help them solve any issues they may encounter. Together, you will be able to prepare standards that ensure that you accommodate the increasing demands from customers and create a positive environment for the employees.
You will see that your employees gain more confidence in you as middle manager, and you will perceived to be someone who cares about their daily challenges and help them find solutions. In other words, there will be less “you and them” and more “we”, which enables better and more de-veloping dialogues with your employees.
By having insight into customer value-add and work processes in your team, you will also have more credibility when you enter into dialogues with your own superior. Your words will carry more weight, and you will be able to take a more active and constructive role in the dialogue on new priorities, cross-functional problem-solving, etc. You will find that stronger insight into the daily work processes will enable you to make your mark on more overarching decisions in the future.
4. CREATE TRANSPARENCY IN YOUR CORE PROCESSES AND PERFORMANCE
Lack of data and transparency enable everyone to develop their own undocumented understanding of how you and your organisation perform. It may be challenging for you to handle and perhaps deliver counterarguments as you lack the necessary evidence.
You need hardcore data to create the necessary transparency in your work processes. Data offers factual insight into your performance – how are your processes working, and do you deliver what you promise to your customers and citizens? Data strengthens the dialogue with both employees and superiors. Data shows whether it is time to celebrate a strong performance, or if it is time to cooperate on solving an issue.
Better data and increased transparency also make it easier to see how the individual employee is performing. However, it is important not to use this transparency to put blame on your employees. That is the sure-fire way to lose their trust. Instead, use transparency as the basis for constructive development dialogues.
5. REALISE BENEFITS
It is your job to realise the value or effects from increasing productivity, improving quality or customer loyalty.
If you, for example, succeed in releasing time as the result of a successful process optimisation, you need to make sure that this time is spent on value-adding activities and does not simply disappear in the daily humdrum. You can do this by e.g. planning more competence development and spar-ring if you have decided as a team that this is something you need. Or the released time can be used to help colleague teams who may be struggling to reach their deadlines.
Based on our experience, we recommend that you involve and ensure agreement from both your superiors and your employees on the benefits that you are striving for. Also although the benefits may not necessarily be equal to everyone. It is also important to have a plan for how the realisation of these benefits is to be done specifically. This reduces uncertainty and distrust among employees. Follow up on and communicate about the benefit realisation so that your team is up to date and can help celebrate.
6. CREATE COMMITMENT
Commitment does not only depend on what you do but also how you do it. Leaders who are able to create commitment know how to work in constructive and development-oriented relationships with their employees and superiors. Your role in the world is to help, support and develop your employees so that you can cooperate on achieving organisational, team and individual goals. An effective way to strengthen this development is to establish a feedback culture in which constructive feedback is given and requested on an ongoing basis. This requires that you are trained in feedback methods and agree on the rules for giving and receiving feedback.
It also requires that you adapt your leadership style according to the needs and competences of your employees as well as according to the tasks they are to solve. This will depend on the situation. In some situations, you will need to use a directive leadership style and, in other situations, to offer space and freedom for the same employees to find their own way to a solution. If you read the situation correctly and adapt your leadership style accordingly, you employees will feel that they are under good leadership, which will strengthen your relationship.
Get started, and take the pressure off
Our six recommendations are proactive approaches you can take to the cross pressure you are under. You will find that you will be able to gain more influence on decisions that have traditionally been outside of your mandate.
And with this proactive role, you will have more motivated employees, better dialogue with your superiors and a more efficient prioritisation of tasks to the benefit of everyone.
This article was originally publish in Ledelse i Udvikling.