How Not to Be a Foregone Conclusion.

Thoughts on middle management from someone new to the concept.

No one in the history of business has ever watched Office Space and sided with the guy holding the TPS report.

That’s because we know that guy. At some point in our varied careers, we’ve worked for that guy. He is a middle-manager, an intermediary…

And nobody likes a guy in the way.

A pretty decent Wall Street Journal feature describes it this way: “Midlevel managers—whose ranks numbered 10.8 million in the U.S. last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—are often dismissed as paper-pushers, perpetuators of groupthink and symbols of organizational bloat.”

And the equally reputable medium, Dilbert (because how can you write a piece on management without quoting Dilbert) defines middle management as “The glue that binds the apathy to the vague objectives.”

So yeah, no one is exactly rooting for that guy.

In recent years, a number of good strides have been made to correct the ill-fated path of management as the only way to move up in a company. Companies have smartly started to carve out individual contributor paths to reward and develop talented individuals who just aren’t cut out for managing and developing others.

But creating a supplemental route doesn’t answer the fundamental question:

What would it take to redefine middle-management as something of real and unique value?

What would it take for middle-management not to suck? A colleague of mine first raised this question (I thought somewhat daringly) in a meeting a few months ago and it stuck with me. It’s fascinating, he explained, because we work in an industry drawn to disruption. We love to rethink and rebuild. We thrive off reinvention. And yet, so many see middle-management as a lost cause — an institution destined for mediocrity.

Surely this is not the nut we opt to leave uncracked.

I’m posing this (to no one in particular) for two reasons. The first of course is a selfish one. I’m new to managing and would like,with all my heart, to be good at it. My team is smart. Let me underscore that again so you know exactly what I’m dealing with here. My team is really freaking smart. And as cozy as being “a symbol of organizational bloat” sounds, I would like to be able to give them more than that.

Second, I have had some exceptionally good managers in my time. I can think of two in particular who fundamentally shaped who I am today and whom I will forever see as mentors and criminally undervalued in their roles. I don’t want to work in a culture where people like them can exist and middle management can still have such mediocre connotations.

So, having safely disclosed my gaps in mastery on this topic, let’s start with what I do know and go from there.

Observation #1: Those people who work for you — they probably don’t need you.

If you’re hiring right, odds are you’ve brought on people who are fully capable at managing themselves. And that can be a scary concept, because it forces you to justify your existence in other ways. This, I think, is the cardinal mistake of bad managers.

Managers who are too focused on justifying their own existence will spend all their time and energy on the wrong things. They will micro-manage. They will put up hoops. They will inadvertently limit the potential of their team to justify their own role within it. And the honest-to-God truth is:

If you have to tell people you’re the authority. You’re not.

Realizing how utterly sufficient your direct reports are at getting their job done is a little like Buzz Lightyear realizing he’s not an actual space ranger. It’s jarring. But loosening your stare on your own raison d’être isexactly what allows everything else to come into focus: the connections between work individual team members are doing, the barriers that stand in the way — the forrest for the proverbial trees.

Doing this, by the way, relies on the company at large having some clarity and belief in the value of managers. If a company can’t define how its managers advance the mission, its managers will perpetually be self-justifying.

Observation #2: Getting out of the way is an art form

In my spare time I teach as an adjunct professor at Boston University. In my early days of teaching the hardest, most unsettling thing was waiting for someone in the class to answer a question. If you want an idea for a new game show, put an individual at the front of a crowded room and challenge him to ask a simple question. Then zap him after 45 seconds when he can’t bear the silence any longer and answers it himself. It took me several semesters to learn how to wait for an answer. It took me even more to learn how to ask a question in a way that coaxes an answer to be spoken.

The managers I really admire have mastered the art of getting out of the way, and doing so in such a way that the perspective of those they manage becomes greater. They ask things like: “I see what you’re saying about [the problem], what do you think is at the heart of that? If you were going to solve that, where would you start?” Or simply: “What’s one thing our team should be doing that it’s not?”

Getting out of the way is inherently about enabling someone else to step up. It’s got to be intentional, subtle and constant. And the best managers have mastered it.

Observation #3: We should probably talk to each other about this stuff.

I wrote this, not because I think the internet needs yet another wandering treatise on the world of business, but because of a third observation. And that is that we ought to be talking about this stuff with each other. Even in fumbly, uninformed ways.

When my colleague raised the question about transforming middle-management, I remember thinking it was a bold statement. I remember thinking that not because it was all that shocking of a premise, but because I genuinely couldn’t remember another time when someone owned up to being a middle-manager and asked about how to be better.

Something happens when you become a middle manager. You stop talking to your peers. You stop seeking advice from people other than your (executive) manager and you stop listening or giving advice to people other than your direct reports. There’s an isolationism that sets in. Part of this is inherent to protecting the people who work for you and not disclosing any of your team’s struggles. Part of it comes back to the justification thing — the need to prove that you know what you’re doing. But I think the shortage of honest conversation among middle-managers in many companies limits their potential.

We should be owning up to uncertainties and pushing harder on how we can make management in the middle more than just a stop-off to the top. This should not be the one puzzle we choose to leave unsolved.