Middle Management: The Power Dilemma
Read time: 5 minutes
Alina, I have the following situation:
I am a project manager for almost two years now, I usually run projects involving a team of about 50 people. I am very conscious and hardworking, well appreciated and respected in my team, I have been constantly delivering results, but I feel I fail continuously the expectations of my boss. I never know when I have the power to take a decision or when in fact I do not have that power. Often, I feel like I take decisions in my area of responsibility with which my boss is not happy and I do not get it: Do I have the power to decide or not?
The Power Dilemma
Does this sound familiar to you, too?
Do you want a fast response? Here it is:
It depends: you have it and, at the same time, you do not have it completely.
If you are a project manager or a functional manager of a company of up to 250 - 300 people, you fall into the category called: middle management.
Basically, you have been hired because you possess a high level of professional knowledge and experience in your chosen field, to be the binder between the level that decides the strategy (senior management) and the level that executes it daily.
And as a binder, you receive stress from each part of that joint: up and down. You need to be prepared for this stress when saying YES to a middle management position, or at least you need to be open to understanding the dynamics you got into. Because whether you are mentally prepared or not, this middle position will stretch you out to the max.
Today I will approach only one stressor: the pressure of feeling like you have all the power and no power.
As a middle manager, how many times did you think you have all the data and took the right decision, only to find out when reporting to your boss that it was not the right one?
That you should have talked prior to him or her and agreed on the plan forward.
Or maybe, you ended up needing to undo your own decision, take back the word you gave to your people or get back to the client and reopen what you thought to be a settled issue just because your boss indicated to you that was not a good decision.
Or, even worse, you had just provoked a situation where your boss now needs to interfere and correct the “mess” created by the decision you took. Only if you were aware of the mess your decision will create.
Most probably you are not alone, many middle managers set themselves into these types of trouble because, from their organizational vantage point, they do not see the entire impact their decision has on the company’s operations, on the company’s profit and loss position, on the company’s bottom line (EBITDA), on the company’s reputation, or even on the shareholders’ direct interests (think small or family businesses).
For reasons that cover a lack of time, the impracticability of being totally transparent with commercially sensitive data, or due to an honest intention to provide you with enough freedom of action and not limit your initiative with any preset limitations, often senior managers will not pass all the details they know in respect of certain strategic decisions they took or were taken at the strategic level.
Therefore, as a middle manager, you need to work actively from the premise that you do not have all the data available in the company whenever you believe you are prepared to take a decision.
Mostly, because you cannot know where the decision you intend to take leads, in terms of the following elements:
- Priority, since the tasks your team is working on, are part of higher-level goals which may incur sudden changes in priority.
- Resources (people included): these are always limited in an organisation and, in a fast-changing market, they require active management and sometimes reallocation for (1) (what may be seen by you as) ad-hoc new initiatives or (2) older initiatives that suddenly shifted to a higher priority, or (3) for requiring approval from another senior organisational sponsor prior to being engaged.
- Strategic relationships, since your decisions and consequent actions may come at odds with the decision-making process in the company (think again at family-owned businesses and their chain of decision-making) or with the long-term commercial interest of a company (think that two companies may oddly choose, on one hand, to litigate and, on another front, to collaborate; or think that company owners have personal relationships with various stakeholders and your decision may impact the commercials interests of the latter; or think that, normally, the company would not favour certain actions, but now there is a particular business interest to penetrate a market and therefore the company decided to invest or go well beyond the extra mile into this new market and make itself known, therefore you are permitted now tasks which otherwise would not be acceptable).
- Bottom-line, since your decisions will have a consequence on the existing commercial deals made by the senior managers in your company. This is very much in line with the item resources above, but I believe it is worthwhile to mention it separately. All your decisions will bear an impact on the company’s ability to earn while executing the project you manage. Any decision you take in respect of changes to the project scope, time and quality will impact your organization’s bottom line. Therefore, many of your project execution agreements you want to strike with the client during the execution of the projects, need to be first internally approved by your senior manager. He knows the real room of maneuver the company has, and even if he does not know, he has all the data to see the overall financial impact on the company’s bottom line (sometimes talking to other senior managers and convincing them of the appropriateness if your proposal, too).
Now, do you see how complex is the texture of your organization?
How do you know when to talk and when not with your manager?
If you saw this complexity, you also understood that any decision of yours has the potential of upsetting something in the organisation or outside it. Talking with your boss before taking a decision becomes a normal practice of communication in your daily work.
It will help you a lot with your mindset to consider you propose your ideas as recommendations for moving ahead as opposed to a decision. Because it is also your responsibility to make sure you included in your decision the input of the higher management.
This input from your manager may be “yes, go ahead and do it”, or “this idea is good in principle, but it is not the right moment now, let’s …”, or it may be “this will not work because … we need to think at something else” or “have you thought what will happen if …, let me explain you”, or even “no, we are not going to do that; instead, this is what you are going to do: …”.
As a middle manager, your responsibility is to come up with a feasible plan within the information you know and to propose it to your manager for his/her approval, before you start executing it.
In fact, I would suggest you have a couple of alternatives prepared. And instead of naming this plan your decision, you name it your recommendation and pass it to your manager.
Your manager may look at it and will give you immediately the GO AHEAD. Or will take your recommendation and discuss it further with other stakeholders inside the organisation, and come back with the “final resolution”. Which can be as you suggested, can be a bit changed or even totally changed.
You can still discuss with your boss this “final resolution”, especially if you see something will impact the execution since you are the one having all the details that may have not been taken into consideration when senior management came to that “final resolution”. Mind that senior management works with the execution details you provide. If they miss something in respect of execution details, is mainly because somehow you missed conveying it to them or they were lost in the process.
You will still have to mention these details to your boss (even if it is very late in the decision-making process), and provide your forecast about what you feel will happen in the light of those details if applying strictly the “final resolution”.
Proceeding in this way you will agree with your boss on the best way to move ahead with implementing the <<final “final resolution”>>.
As you see the collaborative decision-making process is not easy. It takes a lot of energy, and a lot of assertiveness, it takes you to have clarity and focus, to manage well your reactions and expectations.
Why? Because otherwise, your approach will be the opposite of collaboration and construction. Will be of resistance.
How this can happen? It happens anytime when the project manager or manager:
- Does not entertain an open communication process, just because he knows he can decide alone, or he already decided he is right
- Is not open to revealing his thinking process for being afraid his idea will be rejected
- Is not sure about the solution and is afraid of revealing his decision and how he came at it
- Second guesses himself constantly and is not eager to sustain a discussion with his manager for being afraid he will not have all the answers
- Believes he needs to take a decision alone and perceives any intervention from his manager as micro-management
- Believes his manager takes credit for the solution he came up with if this boss opens an organizational discussion for obtaining a larger agreement with other senior managers in the organisation
- Believes his job is to do the technical stuff and not to deal with communication for obtaining approval
- Dismisses the internal collaborative decision-making process as politics and is decided to not have to deal with it
- Believes that his boss expects him to have that bullet-proof, unique, perfect solution which cannot be contested by anyone
- Does not see decision-making as a collaborative process, but rather as a one-shot thing with himself in the centre.
- Believes that receiving input to his recommendation is a failure from his side since he could have done better in bringing the first time a perfect solution
- Is offended any time the “final solution” is different from his initial proposal
- Perceives as a rejection of anything that comes differently as input.
- Refrains from signalling potential existing risks in the “final solution” although is aware of them.
- Executes the “final decision” without any engagement just because it was not theirs
- Feels vulnerable and exposed any time he has to back their recommendation with facts and data to the senior managers who are the ultimate decision-makers.
- Postpones up to the possible latest moment to present a recommendation and open up the internal discussion about a decision, creating the premisses of a real internal crisis (usually for the organisation not having the due time to digest all the steps required).
Why are all the above signs of resistance from the project manager or manager involved?
Because in acting as listed above, the respective project manager continues to have a mental model for decision-making other than the collaborative one: decision centric (it is only him deciding), only one decision layer (decision involves only his management position and level), in one step (I decide NOW), less process-oriented (the decision is taken in one moment), with a focus put rather local (I need to provide my team with a local solution) than organisationally wide (connected with the needs of other stakeholders).
In this context, this project manager or manager will build up a lot of frustration and will see themselves as failing continuously:
- For feeling frustrated their manager hides information from them
- For feel disappointed they cannot know how to communicate with their manager
- For failing to reach alone the decision
- For generating mini-crisis
- For having to undo the done (if case)
- For living continuously under high pressure
- For second-guessing their abilities
No senior manager will like to work with a middle manager in resistance. Because a project manager in resistance is a person who will oppose collaboration.
So, does middle management have the decision power?
Yes, absolutely, middle managers have a lot of power. But they need to pay attention to how they use it and learn how to master using it. Because all decisions based on a wrong mindset will make them feel as if resisting everything and anyone and will make them feel powerless.
Coaching can help a lot in these cases since it helps the client shift his perception of his role and responsibility and the meaning he gives to the role he has into a collaborative decision-making process.
An executive coach with a deep understanding of how organizations work and of the dynamics of the organizations can, even more, be the right ally for the manager who wants to increase their ability to influence decisions, to gain fast the trust of the senior managers with whom they have to collaborate, to gain self-confidence in their decisions, to strongly increase their performance.
In the end, I leave you with a few questions:
- What is the role you allocate yourself in the decision-making process?
- What are the current assumptions you make about the decision-making process?
- How open are you to presenting your manager with your thought process behind your recommendation?
- What would you like to see in your ability in 2023 in respect of using better your middle management power?
Until next time, remain safe and sage!
Your High-Performance and Mindset Coach
💥🎉 That’s pretty much all for today 💥🎉
Many middle managers feel they are not given enough power to take decisions. Or they feel that even if they are given this power, they are often criticised by their senior managers for not taking the right decision. And this blocks their initiative and puts them on a huge alert.
Middle managers need to understand how their actions impact the wider organisation.
Middle managers are better off practising a more collaborative and inclusive decision-making process. For this, they need to shift from perceiving the decision as a moment in time managed by them to a process with multiple stakeholders, where their decisions are actually the input as a recommendation for a final decision, and where the ultimate decision-makers are the senior managers.
Often, their emotions interfere and impede middle managers from fully collaborating.
As a middle manager, knowing your own tendency to self-sabotage is very useful. It helps you clean your own narrative and intercept your thinking saboteurs preventing you to collaborate. And doing so helps you multiply your performance through increased credibility and confidence.
Coaching is the right process in which middle managers can become aware of their self-sabotaging patterns, and how they block their professional development or evolution. Coaching is the right environment to practice letting go of what is not real or useful and to test new ways of behaving or acting in decision-making.
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