Stuck in the middle – and feeling the pinch

by Mark Cole and John Higgins

Managing the middle

It is a paradox of management that, wherever you find yourself in a hierarchy, you are always structurally a “middle manager”. Invariably, you are trying to engage with people around and below you in the organisation – and there is someone above trying to connect with you

Where people are striving to be positive in their approach to other human beings at work i.e genuinely trying to forge meaningful and open relationships, this openness has the potential to create a space in which dialogue can flourish.

However, in practice, it is oftentimes the case that something less positive arises. The “middleness of management”, to work with a powerful notion from Barry Oshry, is bounded by two things: someone above you, breathing down your neck; and the stickiness of “systems glue”.

If one allows oneself to be hypnotised by the dominant discourse of business, then it seems self-evident that management and leadership is deeply and significantly informed by the human relations school of organisation. McGregor’s Theory X and Y from 1960 has resolved its (to be candid, faintly absurd) binary opposition in favour of positivity as a way to get the best from people.

What we hear

But this flies in the face of the day-to-day organisational experience of people. Our Great Unheard project suggests two broad themes about how the workplace felt over the past 18 months: at grassroots level, it seemed as though the bureaucratic constraints loosened and allowed a greater autonomy and room in which to get things done efficiently and at pace; meanwhile, in the upper tiers of the organisation, it seems people initially struggled to define their presence in the significantly changed context they faced…but latterly asserted themselves through the active embrace of “command and control” as a leadership practice.

Here’s a story from a friend of John’s that unfolded over this period. He joined a large organisation, who had sought him out as an expert in his field. His extensive onboarding covered the corporate ideology, which espoused empowerment, flat leadership structures, matrix working, and post-bureaucratism. However, when the friend took this at face value and struck out to generate business on his own, he ended up in front of his boss and his boss’s boss, being introduced to the ideology in practice in that moment. In plain language he was told that they (meaning the company) owned John’s friend and that, as a result, he should not do anything without asking express managerial permission.

In a spirit of generosity, we’ll opine that this happened not because such managers and leaders are villains, intent on doing negative things, but because all the players were caught up in a particular ebb and flow of power. Nevertheless, it reminds us that it’s easy to find examples of people reasserting old fashioned leadership practice, in light of the dual experience of release at grassroots and tightening at the top.

It seems entirely plausible that the tectonic shift in leadership, away from the mountaintop and down to the valley, may well have left the people up in the peaks up in the air, feeling exposed and not immediately able to redefine themselves and how to be of service.

Taking ownership of leadership

This rethinking of what a useful presence might be is crucial as we try to consider how to help leaders rethink their role. Corporations shovel huge amounts of cash out of the door in pursuit of “Leadership Development”, a notion that often yokes together very traditional content with old-fashioned ideas of taught educational delivery. Our view is that a starting point for leaders seeking to reconsider leadership is to commit to unlearning all that they feel they know about what they are trying to do in the workplace.

Linked directly to this idea of unlearning are two other commitments: criticality and reflexivity. These, for us, are the two pursuits that offer a manager or leader the aptitudes to help them interrogate their current thinking and practice and begin to shape a new way of being in their organisational setting. We have given some thought to articulating what lies behind each of these ideas…

(C) Mark Cole & John Higgins 2021

It is extremely difficult for leaders and managers to engage with the complex question of “Where’s my agency in my organisation – and what can I achieve there?” without engaging in some rigorous personal work. This work interrogates the taken-for-granted world of corporate leadership and requires people to take personal responsibility for creating such leadership while finding their own way as a leader. This mirror’s Jean-Paul Sartre’s assertion that humans are born as nothing and become something through their choices and interactions with the world and the others in it.

In summary, we are not leaders until we start to make choices through our leadership praxis which we shape and design as an individual leader and our leadership in the world. In turn this creates and sustains the very notion of leadership as an aggregate practice across humankind. That is why Sartre speaks of our responsibility as human agents – and the anxiety that this ceaseless negotiation of choices can generate in us

Not to acknowledge this ever emerging and contingent quality of what we do as leaders – and how those things we do give fresh and shifting shape to leadership in general – is to allow ourselves to be consumed by the paradoxes and myths of organisational life, as we have sought to demonstrate in our recent book, Leadership unravelled: The faulty thinking behind modern management.

We are delighted to advise that we will shortly be able to offer a two-hour workshop for those managers and leaders who are eager to explore these ideas through their corporate practice and personal orientation.

This resonates with our final crucial belief in respect to leadership and its development. We are of the mind that it is questionable as to whether leadership can be developed in and of itself. Instead, it is our contention that a person should endeavour to develop their engaged and ethical self, so that when the opportunity to lead presents itself, they are personally prepared to engage meaningfully and thoughtfully with that live challenge.

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