Leading from the middle–practical advice

Jun 20, 2022 | Coach's Questions

Leading from the middle can feel, well, muddled at times.

As a middle manager, you have to manage up, manage down and manage yourself.

We have a guiding principle at Padraig we reflect on when we run workshops with middle managers: The role of the middle manager is to provide fearless advice and loyal implementation.

We consider this the guiding north star for middle managers because no matter what you encounter in your professional life, you’ll stay on track leading from the middle when you remember your twofold role of providing fearless advice and loyal implementation. Essentially:

Managing Up is the fearless advice part of being a middle manager.
To do this well, you need to be:

  • Proactive
  • Open-minded
  • Inquisitive
  • Goal oriented

Managing Down is the loyal implementation part of being a middle manager.
This requires that you are able to get buy-in (even if you initially opposed an idea or strategy). To do this, you need to be:

  • Empathetic
  • Solution-focused
  • Able to use a Coach Approach with your staff

Managing Yourself is really about building resilience.
We’ll devote a future blog to this topic more fully, but as a quick overview for today, we’ll use this model from DRIVEN in Australia:

We like it as a model for building resilience because it covers all the areas – Vision, Composure, Reasoning, Health, Tenacity and Collaboration – that we believe are important when you want to build your own resilience.

Take a moment to look at this model and read over the six areas. Then consider:

  • How would you rate yourself, on a scale of one to 10, on each area of the model?
  • How often do you check in on how you’re doing in each area (and thus know which area you might need to focus on for now)?

Managing Up: What to do when you don’t agree with your boss

One of the trickiest situations for anyone leading from the middle is when you realize that you disagree with the direction your boss is taking or a decision that’s been made.

As a middle manager, you do have a voice and you might have influence. Before you communicate with your boss that you have reservations about something, it’s important to consider the “why” of your disagreement. What is it about the direction or decision that you disagree with?

Are you concerned for the company? Your clients? Your department? Your staff? Your budget? Your career? Is the concern related to your own beliefs, fears or past experiences?

It will help you to have clarity about WHY you don’t agree with your boss. If you reflect on this and determine that you don’t agree, then it’s time for you to step into the role of giving fearless advice.

Preparing to give fearless advice

As you get ready to give your honest feedback to your boss, determine:

What is the best way to communicate with your boss? At Padraig, we like to use the DiSC model to help managers understand how personality styles affect the way we share and receive information. Depending on personality style, your boss might be:

  • Direct, bold, focused on goals
  • Friendly, engaging, focused on ideas and new opportunities
  • Careful and concerned, focused on people
  • Detailed and data-driven, focused on facts

Knowing how your boss likes to receive information can be very helpful when you want to offer fearless advice. You can tailor your “pitch” to the information that matters most to them when they have to make a decision.

What is the best time and location to talk to your boss? Ideally, you’ll determine this quickly. Sooner is usually better than later because leaving it and hoping it will go away will almost certainly lead to a decision you are unhappy with. Consider the location carefully. A private location (away from an audience of your peers or the folks you manage) might be wise.

Giving fearless advice

When you share your objections or concerns with your boss:

  1. Set the stage, if needed. If your boss is bold, focused and direct, you may not need to do this. For the others, you may need to ask permission to be candid and share your intention up front to have an honest, respectful conversation. This might sound like, “I’m struggling with this, and I want to either convince you of my perspective or come around to better understand your direction so that we can implement it.”
  2. Remember, this is a conversation, not a monologue. You are there to understand what you might not yet understand, not to simply tell your boss your opinion. (Pro tip: Revisit our blog about listening styles, which overviews how to listen to understand rather than to reply.) It’s possible you might learn insights that will change your mind.
  3. Ask for, and earn, permission to disagree if that hasn’t already been set. This is important because some bosses handle criticism well and others do not.
  4. Show respect with dissent. Note that saying, “with all due respect” is almost never respectful. Instead, say something like, “I hear you feel X is important, and I understand that (or, I agree with that) but I think Z is going to damage something.” Or, “I really respect your opinion on that. I worry that X will harm the situation.” It can be helpful to start with the 10 percent you agree with before you start talking about the 90 percent that is problematic for you.
  5. Share your WHY. Acknowledge what is driving you – WHY are you concerned? (Remember that resolving conflict always starts with the WHY.) How will you know if there is room for influencing the decision?
  6. Know when it’s time to move on. It’s possible that the decision has been made, and your objections will be heard but not make a difference. Be clear with your boss what has come of the conversation. For example, you might say:

“I understand you’ve made your decision, and while I need some time to get comfortable with it, I will certainly support the decision and do my best to make it successful.”

“I can see you feel strongly about this. Can I take a day to figure out how best to represent it to my team?”

“We both feel strongly about what’s best here, and I’m not sure we’re seeing it the same way. I know the final decision is yours, and I will certainly respect it. Are you open to any more conversation before you finalize things?”

Managing Down: Communicating to your team:

As we’ve mentioned, part of leading from the middle is loyal implementation of decisions, strategies or goals. This means you need to buy-in to the decision and get the buy-in of those you manage, which can feel challenging when you disagree with the decision.

Before we continue, let’s be clear. Understanding what the issue is and buying into the chosen direction is not the same as agreeing with something. Buy-in means you respect that the decision is not yours and you will support the decision-maker and the organization with whichever decision they make.

Buy-in also means you will show support for that decision with others – you must never go to others and complain that you think the decision maker is wrong, or that you would have done it differently. For starters, that’s irrelevant since you’re not the decision maker and it’s damaging because it destroys trust, undermines authority and builds a culture of complaining behind peoples’ backs.

To implement this new decision or strategy, you’ll need to:

  • Understand it and buy-in for yourself first. Your team likely won’t buy-in if they sense hesitation on your part. As noted, you don’t have to agree with it, but buying in means you accept it was that person’s decision and you’re ready to help them make it work.
  • Sort out the timing and prep for it. The more prepared you are, the better you’ll field questions from your team in ways that support the decision. It’s good to be timely in presenting it to your team, but it’s critical that you have the right mindset.
  • Maintain respect for the company and your boss. Your role as a middle manager is to implement this, not undermine it. One way you can do this is to share information about what helped you buy into the idea.
  • Be specific. Share as much information as you can. One of the most important ways to get buy-in on big ideas is to be able to articulate the vision behind a decision and why it’s essential or important.
  • Watch what you say (and how). Mixed messages will not fly! Stick to the fact that you’ve bought into this and you want to make it succeed.
  • Set clear expectations. Focus on collaboration, understanding and buy-in (possibly the same way your boss set expectations with you!).
  • Allow venting, not debate. People can air their concerns. Use dissent as a way to hear them and provide information that explains why this is being implemented but stop the discussion if it becomes arguments against the decision.
  • Use a Coach Approach. This is an opportunity to ask questions aimed at helping staff figure out how they can make this work (for themselves, for their clients, etcetera…). Instead of dictating the answers, using a Coach Approach is an effective way to get folks to figure out solutions they can buy-into. Use questions like, “Now that we’re going this route, what help do you need to make it happen?”

Follow-up more than once. Check in with your staff to see how things are going and how they’re feeling. This way, you can help to troubleshoot concerns and celebrate successes.

Guidance often has to be delivered many times before people have clarity, so make an effort to communicate regularly or even over-communicate.

Coach’s Questions:

Is there a sticky middle-management issue that you’re facing? What fearless advice do you want to share? What can you do to succeed more with managing up and managing down? How might you approach this differently? Is there another way you could look at this? What will help you implement this?