clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right…
Yep, being a middle manager can a tragicomic experience. Lisa Haneberg at Management Craft comments on a recent article from the HBS Working Knowledge e-newsletter by Harold J. Leavitt on The Plight of Middle Managers. I think Leavitt gets some things right, but unfortunately seems to be happy to accept the organizational hierarchy model as the way things are done. Of course, I may be oversimplifying his argument based on only an except from his book.
Here’s what I think he’s right on about:
Being a middle manager can be a lonely, isolating experience, at times. You have to be savvy to navigate and coordinate the often different desires of your line staff and those of executive management. Both of these groups need to be open to understanding the objectives and needs of the other and if they do not, it is up to the folks in the middle to clear a path for making this happen. The danger is being perceived as being too much in favor of one group over the other. This is where personal integrity must be a middle manager’s chief value. And yet it’s never as easy as it seems. Leavitt writes:
In big hierarchies, the middle managerial highway is pitted with such psychological potholes. Despite valiant humanizing efforts, it will continue that way. Traveling that road requires a fine, continuous interplay among a triangle of forces: one’s personal values, the real (not the professed) standards of the organization, and the need to keep the family’s refrigerator full.
I would only argue that this is what a middle manager faces regardless of whether its a big or small company with a hierarchical structure.
Here’s what I think he’s got dead wrong:
There’s a line between accepting what is and striving for something better. It seems that he’s arguing for the former:
Perhaps it’s time to stop trying to persuade managers and other organizational employees to behave as though they are not occupants of authoritarian hierarchies, when, in fact, that’s exactly where they live. […]
I cringe to see the word "authoritarian" in anything. Take a look at the word in the dictionary and you’ll find such phrases as "requiring unquestionable obedience" and "against individual freedom." This is the way of the industrial age when individuals went to the factory and told to be non-thinking entities. This is not the way of the new age we live in, the age where we are no longer mindless cogs in a machine, but thoughtful, soulful individuals who know that organizations NEED their talents far more than they need the organization.
Folks, if you’re at a crossroads where you have to choose between your integrity for what’s right to you and the standards of your organization (in other words, these are in conflict), think carefully. If this happens often, think carefully about finding a better place to work.