When it’s time to BE MORE DIRECT!

Because I often speak to groups about my book on organizational transformations and ways to manage toxic work cultures, I sometime find myself inadvertently triggering confessions from participants about their particularly difficult personal work situations. I frequently discuss the characteristics of leaders and cultures that can cause an organizational “descent” before I talk about strategies designed to prompt an “ascent”. The descent segment frequently generates a lot of head nodding in the room. People can relate.

More often than not, the most intense reactions come from those who describe themselves as middle managers. In my opinion and based on a number of personal experiences, I believe the middle manager role is the most difficult and most essential within most organizations. These individuals are responsible for transmitting directives based on strategic insights and goal setting processes from on high down to staff who will accomplish the work while simultaneously forwarding the realities of getting work done and frustrations from staff upward to the executive team. They are the watershed point from which much of the essential organizational communication flows.

In future posts, I’ll talk more about how to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of this bidirectional exchange, but today I’ll focus on the situation when the middle manager encounters significant resistance from his or her executive team.

In a recent discussion, one nurse manager described to me the challenging situation within which she finds herself as her reporting relationships are matrixed, access to one leader is severely constrained, and the directives she receives vary and conflict based on the source of issuance. From the follow-up dialogue with her, I learned that she recently filled a position that had been vacant for many months and for which there has been considerable historical turnover. Uhm, no kidding.

There are times when deft and artful communication is called for, when managing upward takes skill and a great deal of charm and choreography. But then there are times when it doesn’t.

My instinct was was to tell her that she must speak clearly, simply, and directly about what she needs in order to be successful. That she should demand more consistency from her two supervisors and that she requires them to coordinate better amongst themselves – it’s not her job to get them on the same page. She needs to request regular meetings with both bosses together. She should keep them posted about her challenges and ask for their ongoing help in solving problems that extend outside of her line of sight or range of influence. In short, she needs to tell them exactly what she requires to be successful.

Then, if those supervisors exhibit a willingness to improve and to consistently assist in this manager’s ongoing success,… then and only then was improvement even possible.

Sometimes you have to walk lightly and sometimes you have to pound the table. In these seeming no win situations, especially for middle managers, a little table pounding – in the form of clear and direct communication – can go a long way toward making things better for everyone.

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