If you cannot manage up, you cannot manage at all
Too often, senior executives expect managers to drive staff towards impossible targets
Middle managers are the vital connecting tissue in organisations. They convey and build trust between the business leaders and the other ranks. Photograph: iStock
When boats carrying thousands of seasick soldiers were sent back to port on June 5th, 1944, many troops had good reason to curse the Allied generals who had delayed the D-Day landings by 24 hours because of bad weather.
Those who survived the first assault must have griped about the decisions of their superiors, as they fought their way bloodily through Normandy in the weeks that followed.
At least their purpose was clear. As 94-year-old veteran Frank Mouqué told the Guardian last week ahead of the 75th anniversary celebrations: “I was a little cog in a big wheel. When you add all those little cogs together – then we became important. We all worked together towards peace.”
But the likelihood that any complaining cog could have significantly affected the strategy was close to zero.
In the workplace, the dangers are rarely life-threatening. Yet the stress caused by ill-explained strategic decisions is no less real for being hidden behind a suit rather than army fatigues. Too often, senior executives expect managers to drive staff towards impossible targets. One such hard-pressed team leader expressed her frustration this way to a panel I chaired for the Financial Times 125 Women’s Forum: “My team is under intense pressure and suffering an increased workload due to decisions being made by senior managers, over whom I have no influence.”
How could she keep her people motivated?
One easy response is to bind the team together in adversity. The leader can show she shares her team’s pain and join in the grumble-fest. But this is at best a short-term fillip to morale. At worst, it is an abnegation of responsibility.
‘Hands are tied’
“Your job is to manage up as well as down. You can influence the work: your job is to negotiate how it’s done, how it’s sequenced, how it’s resourced,” according to one panellist, Johanna Waterous, a non-executive director and former McKinsey consultant.
Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and author, says the feeble excuse “I’d like to do the right thing but my hands are tied” is heard all the way up the pyramid of corporate power. Staff complain about their inability to change the minds of managers; managers complain about the executive committee; the exco complains about the board; and the board complains about shareholders.
In the second World War, even the lowliest officers could send their concerns up the line of command. When this mechanism proved unreliable, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery set up a special reconnaissance unit to report on morale and troop movements.
It is not enough, though, for managers to assume their bosses will somehow intuit what is wrong. They must communicate constantly.
It helps if team leaders manage up in good times, as well as bad. Middle managers are the vital connecting tissue in organisations. They convey and build trust between the business leaders and the other ranks.
When I ran a newsdesk, I mediated between the editor’s (sometimes harsh) daily judgments and my team. Good feedback, I transmitted straight away. But I felt I knew best how my colleagues would react to criticism – and how and when to convey it.
Passing information in the other direction also requires tact. Managers can insist their boss provides clarity about priorities, by laying out the opportunity cost of pursuing the boss’s path. They can point out that reaching a particularly stretching goal is possible, but may need more resources. They can suggest feasible alternatives.
Most organisations are no longer rigidly hierarchical. As one forum participant pointed out, “I might hit a wall, but I can go round it”, by cultivating and calling for support from more sympathetic managers in the network of command.
If the pressure cannot be alleviated, managers must start to become more creative. After one company Ms Heffernan worked with hit hard times, managers said to themselves: “We don’t have time or money, but we do have imagination and we have each other.” Instead of splurging on away-days to boost morale, for instance, they hosted team meetings in their own homes.
Research by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer has shown that managers who take the trouble to recognise and celebrate even small steps towards a difficult goal can generate self-motivating bursts of joy.
One final response to an unworkable order was unavailable to the cogs in the D-Day machine: just say no.
Sometimes, Ms Heffernan says, managers must ask themselves: “Do I have the opportunity to be effective here?” She was once trying to implement an unfeasible strategy imposed from above when she realised her team was sticking with the plan only for her sake. To free them to move on, she resigned.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019