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The Hazardous and Perilous Plight of Being a Middle Manager and what to do About it – Part One


The following excerpt is taken from “How to Exercise Influence when you Have no Authority”

The Hazardous and Perilous Plight of Being a Middle Manager and What You Can Do About It

Part One

This post will be a three-part article because it is dealing with a very tricky business, being a middle manager.

A barren wasteland if there ever was one.

In several other programs I have emphasized how important it is to “contextualize” your communication with, between and among other people and departments.

This is especially true as a middle manager as he/she is surrounded, betwixt and between a boss, bosses, colleagues and direct reports.


 What to Say When Assigning a Task

Here is an example of what I mean by the term to systemically “contextualize”.

“Jimmy, with this task let me be clear as to what I am asking you:

1. I need and want this task to be done exactly the way “I” have assigned it (Football – Compliance), that is to say, both the “What” and the “How” are to be done precisely the way I have asked…

2. This project is more of a shared process (Basketball – Cooperation), that is to say, “We” will do the both “What” and the “How” together. So we will need to confer on an ongoing basis both when and how we think we should work on this…

3. This task belongs to “You” (Baseball – Competition), that is to say, both the “What” and the “How” belong to you; they are your responsibility…


What to Say When Being Assigned a Task

“Boss, I am happy to do this task. Thank you. Are asking me:

1. To simply do the task exactly the way “You” have assigned it (Football – Compliance), that is to say, both the “What” and the “How” are to be done precisely as you have asked…

2. This project is more of a shared process (Basketball – Cooperation), that is to say, “We” will do both the “What” and the “How” together and if so can we talk about when and how you think we should work on this…

3. To simply do the task as “I” think it should be done (Baseball – Competition), that is to say, both the “What” and the “How” belong to me, are my responsibility…


How to Have a Direct (Football) Conversation with a Difficult Executive on Your Team

If you are of a more genteel nature and find confrontation difficult, as indeed most of us do, you can contextualize the conversation (take on the role of a benevolent dictator as it were) for the resistant recipient because they cannot and would not do this on their own, even if they could, by saying something like:

“Jimmy, I love how you run your department; we/I am so lucky to have someone as good as you (Baseball: you are a “Star”) and I really like how your work through the process in such a collaborative and cooperative way with our executive team (Basketball).

But this issue is about the organization (Football), so it is my call. You are suffering with the illusion that this is a conversation. It is not. I am telling you that this is the direction that we (the organization) are going. In other words, what I am telling everyone is, get on the bus or get off the bus.

And Jimmy, I never want to have this discussion again. Are we clear about this?”

This chapter amplifies that point, only for those who have the seemingly impossible role of being a middle manager.


 Your Middle Management Mantra:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Being a middle manager (synonymous with being a project manager in a large, hierarchical matrix organization) is the toughest role in management.

Napoleon said, “The role of a leader is to define reality and give hope.”

Middle managers constantly and perpetually find themselves caught (read “powerless”, “stuck”) between, indeed juggling senior executives hopes with junior level realities.

How do you do this without being the bad guy, to one or the other or both?

The root cause of course in all this boils down to two questions:

Who gets to decide the “what” (the job is) and the “how” (it should be done)?


 What is the Right Decision?

When you are a middle manager, you may be right about a decision but you may not get to make the final decision.

Your capacity, knack, and skill to understand, accept, and make the most of your decision-making power you do have will make or break your career.

In other words, your middle manager mantra must be:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Three Important Lessons

There are three lessons for mid-level managers of any size organization must master.

You must:

  1. Be aware of the limits and obligations of your decision-making power.
  2. Undergo an attitude adjustment to accept those limits and obligations.

Act wisely, judiciously and facilitatively within those limits.

Before the Fact, Upfront, Prior to, Sooner Rather Than Later, Ahead of, Beforehand and so Forth

It is very important that you make clear who gets to decide both the “what” and the “how” of the job, before the fact:

“What” needs to be done?

And to what degree each person has a say in “how” work gets done and by whom.

By openly discussing this upfront, people not only get onto the same page, they buy in and commit to the final decision, even if it is a decision with which they don’t agree.

This is the key to succeeding at and enjoying the job of managing people from a mid-level position.


 Middle Managers Manage People and Processes but Not Tasks

In the old days, you got to do lots of the fun stuff, but middle managers find that suddenly, others are doing the fun things while your job is to help them succeed.

Thankless jobs such as setting budgets, hiring staff, improving systems, so they can do their job and instead of appreciating your efforts, they want to do things their way, not yours.

Imagine that!

Their resistance to your experience, their repeated mistakes and the loss of control that goes with becoming a mid-level manager can be very tough to take.

The Driver Passenger Management Metaphor


 When you assign work, you are making that person the “driver” of the work.

She is the doer, the performer.

By default then, you are not.

If she is the driver, you are the passenger.

But the passenger still has a stake in how well the driver performs.

You are affected if she crashes!

For this reason, passengers must retain a certain share of authority in how the driver drives, often unconsciously and out of habit.

This is a root cause of the power struggles that bedevil and afflict so many middle managers.


 Who Is In Control

This driver-passenger metaphor for sharing decision-making authority is central to breaking the being a middle manager logjam.

Like driving a car, a lost driver appreciates a passenger who can give good advice on where to go.

The passenger’s advice gives him a share of responsibility in the driver’s actions and results.

On the other hand, a driver who knows where she is going does not appreciate an overly-controlling passenger telling her how to drive!

This reflects an overlap in authority, with both parties wanting control over where or how to drive.

This mismatch in decision-making authority can lead the performer to rebel, resent or detach from being committed to delivering great results, a central cause of performance problems for middle managers.

The Decision Making Authority Scale below (Figure One) indicates the driver’s seven levels of shared authority.


 Decision Making Authority Scale: Figure One


Notice that on this agreement the driver wanted/needed a level of autonomy of 60/100, that is “Informative”.


 The AAA Power Process: Three Stages

There are three stages in which this shared power process occurs.

Stage One: Awareness

Stage Two: Attitude

Stage Three: Action

In part two we will look at the first stage in the Power Process, Awareness; what is meant by awareness and how important it is for a middle manager to have it as a central and ongoing part his/her repertoire.

For more on this topic, we recommend the following


How to Exercise Influence When
You Have No Authority

Political Cunning, Shrewdness, Savvy and Power
for the Unschooled and Disinclined

Click Here For Video and Full Description


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