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The following blog is provided by Liz Kislik. It is a companion to her interview on Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future titled Defining Organizational Problems: Beyond Personal Experience that aired on May 26th, 2020.
Midlevel leaders are absolutely crucial to managing the guts of an organization and accomplishing its business. Unfortunately, even competent, up-and-coming leaders can languish if they don’t get appropriate developmental attention from their senior leaders, but those senior leaders sometimes expect junior leaders to develop on their own.
In an interview I did with Amir Ghannad for The Transformative Leader podcast, we talked about how senior leaders can provide the right input to middle managers to ensure they’re achieving their own successes and supporting the organization’s continued growth.
Be Intentionally, Persistently Curious
Leaders often think of middle managers in terms of their roles and responsibilities and form monolithic assumptions about how middle managers are expected to think and what their considerations are. But every individual takes action based on what seems best to them at the time. If their choices seem wrong, probe to find out their reasons.
When leaders think, “Oh, that’s trivial. That’s dumb. I’ll just tell them to knock it off,” they’re actually undercutting their subordinates’ autonomy and ability to adjust and perform better. If you ask what prompted middle managers’ actions or comments instead of making assumptions, you can approach them in a more open, less judgmental way and you’ll seem less like a know-it-all. You’re also more likely to take their opinions and concerns more seriously.
During our conversation, Amir told me about two skillful, productive people who had been in conflict for 12 years based on a single mistaken impression. Once the mistake came to light, the relationship improved dramatically, but it took months of probing to uncover the original misapprehension. Amir’s story demonstrates that no directive to behave differently can effectively cut through someone’s deeply held pain (even if that pain is unnecessary) — and how finally getting to the bottom of a long-held conflict is a true relief.
Partner on Problems and Perspectives
Say you do figure out where your midlevel leader is coming from. You can’t do an improvement to them. You may be able to see what needs to change, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to hear it. So, after finding out what they’re thinking, go to wherever the other person is mentally, and take their perspective rather than dictating to them from on high.
Unless it’s a true emergency, try to ignore your own reaction and the intensity of your beliefs about what would work better. Suppress your impulse to impose solutions, because when you slice through difficulties like the proverbial hot knife through butter, subordinates may not feel ownership for the situation. They may follow your directions but neglect to think broadly about costs and benefits, sequencing, or other operational details — even if they know more about operations than you do — and mistakes are more likely to be made.
Don’t Give Leaders Solutions; Teach Them How to Develop Solutions
The old saw, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions!” is a common complaint among leaders who believe that their people don’t think and want to be spoon fed. Risk-averse middle managers may be comfortable having you act decisively and save them time and effort by telling them what to do. But in the long run, you build better solutions when more people contribute to them. And why create unnecessary dependency that slows down implementation and turns you into a bottleneck?
You may need to teach the people involved new ways of thinking and interacting if they’ve developed the habit of expecting you to call the shots. This kind of development requires coaching rather than directing. So, ask middle managers what factors lie under the scenarios they present, and to be explicit about pros and cons — not just as a general list, but as detailed, second-order potential consequences. Encourage them to hypothesize about why negative patterns recur and speculate about multiple potential alternatives.
As midlevel leaders begin to see you being consistently curious, open to their views, willing to partner, and supportive of their decision-making, not only will they be better partners for you but they also may start exhibiting those behaviors with their subordinates as well. That’ll help develop your next cadre of up-and-coming managers, and strengthen your organization from the bottom up.
Onward and upward —
Check out the companion interview and past episodes of Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future, via iTunes, TuneIn, Stitcher, Spotify, Amazon Music, Audible, iHeartRADIO, and NPR One. Stay up-to-date on new shows airing by following the Innovative Leadership Institute LinkedIn.
About the Author
Liz Kislik is a management consultant and executive coach, and a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and Forbes. Her specialty is developing high performing leaders and workforces, and she helps family-run businesses, national nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies like American Express, Girl Scouts, Staples, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Highlights for Children solve their thorniest problems. Her TEDx talk, “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix It,” has been viewed over 160,000 times. Liz received her BA from Yale University and earned an MBA in Management from NYU.
Photo by Christina Morillo