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How to Thrive in Middle Management

The toughest job in any big organization is flourishing in the middle of a management chain. Simply put, the middle is where strategy – and sometimes unachievable vision – collide with day-to-day reality.

If you’re at the top of a hierarchy, your job is to challenge teams to stretch. You’ve got full permission to set the course, innovate, and drive change. People naturally come to you for direction about the future, and your bolder thinking is what probably got you promoted in the first place. You have the freedom to delegate, but, depending on the level of transparency in your organization, you may or may not be able to see how much work your bigger decisions create.

If you are starting out at the bottom of a hierarchy, you have no history to be vested in. Hopefully you feel greater freedom to experiment and try new things, and if you fail you are likely to recover faster.

But if you’re in the middle of an organization, you’ve got a uniquely tough job. Everybody expects you to help come up with and execute innovative ideas. And, more than those above and below, you must connect the strategy and execution details on an hour-to-hour basis.

So how can you make sure that the creative ideas that determine your company’s success don’t get stuck in the middle?

1. Be bold in convening decision makers on things that matter

Too often, decisions get held up between functions that are paid to control risk rather than achieve mission-based goals. Ask: “What matters most to customers and the enterprise, and who needs to make the decision that will move us forward?” Be aggressive in convening the right people. Accept the fact that you won’t always get your way – but remember that a fast “no” is better than a slow, conditional “maybe.” Senior leaders will respect you for focusing on strategic outcomes. If you execute well, you will quickly garner the reputation as a “can-do leader” willing to speak truth to power in the interest of getting things done.

2. Create opportunities for freedom within the framework

I’m always amazed by the lengths companies go to hire original thinkers and doers, only to confine them inside hierarchies and bureaucratic rules. Over-management suffocates innovation and reinforces silos. Companies need rules and structure to get things done, but they also need to give middle managers the freedom to innovate within a framework. Great new solutions don’t always follow set procedures. If they did, we’d have an infinite supply of them already.

If you’re a manager, create regular ways for your employees to interact outside the normal operating rhythm. Even within the normal operating cadence, try to be somebody your colleagues can come to for honest, confidential, and constructive feedback about what’s working and what’s not. In meetings and collaborative work, be on the lookout for moments when other people might be holding back out of anxiety, and ask for their input later. They’ll appreciate a chance to share, and you’ll get the benefit of a fresh, authentic perspective.

3. Focus on learnings, not mistakes

When good ideas die, it’s usually a side-effect of culture. Believe it or not, that’s good news, because you can change culture.

One easy change to make is to use different words when evaluating projects. If you’re reviewing somebody’s work, or even if your own work is up for review, try to shift the discussion away from black-and-white categories of success or failure. If somebody’s project doesn’t work out, don’t ask “what went wrong,” but instead ask “what did you learn?”

This suggestion is about retooling the systems that generate respect inside an organization. Being an innovative company means being in a state of continuous change. Not every new idea is going to work out as intended. Managers and systems that only reward people who are right 100% of the time, or who are anxious to give that impression, aren’t making their workplace safe for new and creative solutions.

4. Replace fear with a sense of adventure

A sense of adventure doesn’t mean a reckless jump into the unknown, but a different attitude toward trying new things. Want to know what parts of your job could benefit from having a more adventurous attitude? Look for those moments when fear or anxiety are keeping you from taking action or speaking up. Rather than rushing past these moments and on to your next task, take five minutes to write down what’s holding you back. Ask yourself how you’d solve the problem if you had all the votes. Share your ideas with a colleague and try to build them out into an actionable plan. Even by just thinking about new ways of solving problems, you’re already on the path to rediscovering the ambition and excitement that got you promoted.

5. Seek context

Most times (with emphasis on “most”) senior leaders act rationally to achieve a broad set of business goals. If your idea is getting shut down, then ask the extra question: Why? When you seek context, you can make broader contributions to your organization.

Great organizations create an environment where middle managers can thrive. What have you seen work well in your organization? If you currently work in middle management, I’m especially curious to get your view. What practices would you strengthen, adopt, or change?

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