Leading change from the middle



As organisations attempt to rise to the heightened challenges of ‘these times’, middle managers are experiencing increased pressure to play their part in leading whatever changes are now required…

However, it is not easy to ‘lead from the middle’ as there are various structural traps to be avoided.  Here’s a guide to negotiating these – drawn from our Integral Change ‘5Ds’ framework, which we used to structure a recent piece of work with the police…

Ways Out of 5 classic traps

1. Dare!  This is the key to avoiding the ‘mini-me’ trap of simply aping your own boss, in a way that erodes your authority instead of enhancing it.  People are very quick to sniff out inauthentic attempts at wielding power by simply aligning yourself uncritically with the boss.  Well-judged challenges to those above you – based on personal experience and knowledge, and daring to be your own man/woman, helps establish authority ‘in the middle’.

2. Distance! Leaders in the middle have to find the personal resilience to distance themselves sufficiently from the ‘front-line’, often conservative, sympathies that they might once have shared – perhaps when they previously worked in a more operational capacity.  Of course, your insight into, and empathy for, front-line perspectives is likely to be hugely valuable.  But this now has to be held within a larger organisational perspective, such that tough messages can still be communicated and difficult decisions taken, as required.

3. Differentiate!  Peer pressure in the middle can be especially deadening, as it tends to dampen risk-taking and forward momentum.  So, while it is often supportive for middle management  to identify a common agenda, it is also crucial to establish your own identity and style when leading from the middle, rooted in your own particular views and strengths.  This may be unsettling for your peers initially, but it will ultimately release them to be bolder and more authentic too – engendering greater respect from the rest of the organisation.

4. Discern! When surrounded by wide-ranging and competing stakeholder demands, it is especially important to identify clearly your own sense of goals and priorities when leading from the middle.   Without this, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to keep everyone happy, perhaps by saying and promising slightly different things to different interest groups in different meetings.   This may work for a while – but will soon result in loss of trust, authority and respect for the individual , and a culture of low accountability across the organisation more generally.

5. Deepen! Instead of manically working multiple interfaces, some find themselves needing to withdraw instead – perhaps overwhelmed by the complexity of leading from the middle and experiencing understandable fatigue.  Of course, it is vital to attend to your self-care as a leader (see our article on this), but too much retreating can lead to colleagues finding you inaccessible and unresponsive – a ‘cave-dweller’.  The challenge here is to withdraw and deepen – rather than simply moving into neutral – which may need some skilled support.   This enables reconnection with some core essentials – like, for example, fundamental personal qualities and your sense of professional purpose – so enabling you to demonstrate increased effectiveness on re-entering the fray…

If you are needing to see greater change leadership from the middle managers in your organisation, why not get in touch?  We’d be happy to talk through what sort of interventions might best address the particular dynamics you are seeing and deliver the shift in performance you are after…

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