The problem is in the middle, isn’t it?

At a number of meetings over the last few weeks, months and in fact years, when people talk about change or anything new, one issue or barrier always comes up…can you guess?

No, it isn’t IT, in fact the most common referred to barrier is –  Middle Managers!

Now, I’m not entirely clear what group of people this actually refers to, other than it could and probably does include anyone who isn’t actually a Senior Manager, Head of Service, Officer and administrators etc…

On that basis I’m probably a middle manager and therefore in a category of people who are considered a barrier. I’ve finally arrived in localgov 🙂

Now whilst most people acknowledge this term and people nod when it is referred to as clearly middle managers are blocks to lots of interesting and innovative things, it does concern me that we can’t actually specify the real barriers to things.

I’m sure there are many managers, in the middle, or at senior levels, who are barriers in many organisations. But what I’d like to suggest is that what we really need to acknowledge is that the biggest barrier to change is in fact – Mediocre Managers.

They can be anywhere and have some common traits for example:

  • They fear empowering their staff or they might look incompetent at their own job
  • They micro-manage every task
  • They see “working from home” as a day off work and hold the view that unless you’re in the office at your desk, you aren’t working – oh and you have to sit in rows….”shudders”
  • Blame lies everywhere else but with themselves

I’m sure you could suggest a few more common traits, however my question is how do you really change people?  I also have to ask myself how many of the above do I demonstrate to my team…hopefully none of them? – I doubt anyone in my team will respond to this as I ban them from reading my blog 🙂

It isn’t going to help anyone by laying the blame on a group of managers, who aren’t actually the problem when the real problem is organisational and sector wide in that we clearly have universal HR processes that promote and reward mediocre behaviours and foster controlling cultures.

The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. 
Abraham Lincoln

So a plea really…whilst a large proportion of those who obstruct actually reside in the middle of a hierarchy, we need to tackle the fundamental organisational and wider enterprise design processes so we reward and foster more creative and innovative behaviours and not point at individual people as they behave like they do because cultures and processes allow them to.


6 thoughts on “The problem is in the middle, isn’t it?

  1. Can’t fault your argument that they might be “middle” but they’re certainly “mediocre”, Carl. But do you have some remedies to suggest, or is that for a future blog?

  2. In defence of the mediocre manager.

    Those mediocre managers are being unguided, unmanaged and disempowered by their own managers, and by HR policy. The mediocre manager is merely the reflection of the organisational system.
    The mediocre manager is in the eye of the beholder.

    Their reality is often that they are not encouraged to have aspirations for themselves. The mediocre manager you describe does not have regular growth and development related discussions with their manager who enthuses, champions and encourages them. They may have occasional 1-1’s where a task list is trawled through.

    The mediocre manager is often being left to manage large workloads and being led by a senior manager who is interested in “strategy” and “doesn’t do the detail”. The mediocre manager isn’t glamorous or exciting to manage, and they’ve probably been hurt at some point so they take time and effort to draw out.

    The mediocre manager is a symptom.

    1. I agree and I say exactly that…

      I’m merely making a point that mediocrity is the output of mediocre thinking and strategy and those managers are simply doing what the systems dictates.

  3. There is mediocrity but there is also stubborness, resistance and threat. There is also fear of failure or censure. Most difficult for the innovation-type to understand is that many people just want to go home at 5 o’clock.

    In the end what I think is missing is a sense of urgency. This has perplexed me for the last 2 years as budgets have been so squeezed.

    Senior managers should be sharing their anxiety more and demanding innovation. They should also be braver about saying – if you think your job is going to be the same in three years, think again!!!!!

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