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How can I help middle managers handle contradictory instructions from top management?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

As a lean coach, how can I help middle-managers who are faced with contradictory instructions from top management?

Tough question. Let’s try to figure out the problem. I was last week in a field office with the entire management line, from the CEO to the local manager, the sales director, and the regional manager. They were looking at the problems highlighted in the office obeya and the exercise they’d all agreed on was … listening. Clarifying each other’s position and truly listening.

"Middle managers, on the other hand, are hard to talk to. They feel tied by so many contradictory injunctions, and what they want is constantly held hostage by someone else."At first, both the director and the regional manager were trying to affirm their narrative over what the field office manager was trying to say … which was that a company policy simply didn’t work in the region they were in, without being quite sure of why.

The CEO stayed very quiet, but later ruefully admitted he’d established the policy and incentivized his sales director on it. By keeping calm and continuing to listen to the office manager, he succeeded in letting his colleague speak, and stating – cautiously – her impressions. The difficulty was that, one, you never know with a policy whether it has value because it’s an across the board policy, even when it’s locally difficult and, two, when people express hunches they’re usually not very clear – that’s why they’re hunches – and it’s easy to dismiss their argument because it sounds weak. Yet, it is precisely these poorly formulated intuitions that lead to a real exploration of what’s going on out there – and learning.

Senior managers need to look good to get their bonus. End of story. The pressure will always be on middle-manager to lie – or at least hide the negative facts – in order to let the big dog demonstrate that he is doing his job. If the company does not perform, it has to be the other functional leaders’ fault.

Check Compass Settings

A large part of the problem is that there are no clear criteria to tell what a good decision would be at the middle manager level, other than their objectives, which are bound to be biased by the reality their boss wants to impose on the world.

The question we can ask is: will any decision make the company stronger or weaker?

If you look at it from the customer point of view, there are two things customers are sensitive to as regards any organization:

  1. Do they agree with what the organization is trying to do? Do they like the current products the business offers (even if they don’t use them themselves) and do they approve of the new products being advertised?
  2. Do they approve of how the organization goes about it? Do they have a favorable opinion of how this company is run and do they trust it to do the smart, sensible, and ethical thing?

These two dimensions give us a sort of “moral compass” for any decision. For any step, as small as it is, we can ask ourselves whether we’re making the organization stronger in the eyes of customers – the only lasting source of sustainability:

  • Is this making the product better? Will the product have greater quality or lower total cost or be better in sync with the spirit of the times if we push that way?
  • Is this increasing cooperation across functions? Will the value stream work better as a whole by increasing the teamwork and mutual trust in the organization if we go that way?

Chances are that if we take a deep breath and look at it this way, what we should be doing is not that hard to figure out – or at the very least what we should avoid doing to weaken the company.

And then comes the highjack.

If we listen carefully, this is when people will tell us that someone holds something important hostage: their reputation, bonus, deadline, etc. The “highjack with hostages” is when a bandit has something you hold dear at gunpoint and tells you “if you don’t do what I say, I’ll shoot the hostage.”

Senior middle-managers are the usual suspects. Some practice highjacking as a routine way to get things done, but sometimes, it can be someone else, such as an embittered expert or a disgruntled co-worker. You’ve got to listen for it.

At which point you realize that the middle-manager you’re trying to help do the right thing is not feeling safe at all – she’s feeling threatened by the highjacker and is in no mood to make any high-road, long-term decision. She just wants the threat to go away. It’s a dicey conversation because people do see what the right thing to do is – but they’re stuck in their internal conversation of “you don’t understand, I’m completely stuffed if I don’t comply with ___” fill in the blank.

The easy mistake to make then is to argue and reinforce the right path and try to coax the person on. They don’t disagree, there is just something ugly they’re not telling you. Sure, they’d like to walk up the mountain and do things well, but have you seen the snarling wolf?

What can we do?

Nothing much.

Or, yes, something much: listen.

Reach the Right Brain

Listening not to get the information. Listening to reach out to the person’s right brain. The left brain is the one that lays things sequentially, in words and arguments and rationally calculates what to do. But the right brain, the emotional, visual, in-the-moment-connected-with-the-universe place is where decisions are really made and where intentions come from.

By making a strong effort to listen and to validate what the person is saying – understanding doesn’t mean agreeingyou can help them quieten down the unseen panic in the right hemisphere of their brain.

This takes quite a bit of work as it’s very hard to acknowledge something you profoundly disagree with (trust me on this, I fail at it all the time), but making the effort is often all that counts. People pick up on your intention to be on their side and to understand their real difficulty – and not judge.

When I get asked hard questions in this column, such as this one, people tend to expect advice on what can they do to unlock the conundrum they’re in. It’s not easy to explain that, very often, to untie a Gordian knot, we can’t do anything, we have to change something in ourselves to look at the situation differently and then see new opportunities.

Senior managers are, in fact, surprisingly easy to talk to. They listen or they don’t, they agree or they don’t, they’ll do their own thing in any case. But the conversation is usually both direct and smooth – they are sitting in front of the pieces of the puzzle and have preferred ways of doing things, but they rarely feel they have a gun to their head.

Middle managers, on the other hand, are hard to talk to. They feel tied by so many contradictory injunctions, and what they want is constantly held hostage by someone else. They're hard to reach because their brain’s right hemisphere is usually overwhelmed by the politics of the situation when they’re left side is calculating coldly the “facts” (carefully selected) that lead to the unavoidable conclusion that we should … not take risks.

I’ve found that helping middle managers required changing something in myself; working on my own listening skills, which is very different from the usual lean Gemba skills of observing and calling it as it is. Listening – not just hearing. I don’t know if this can help, but it’s a very interesting path. Not necessarily easy, but never a dull day!

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Bob Emiliani April 22, 2019

Senior managers own this problem. They do not do the work necessary to set middle managers up to succeed https://tinyurl.com/yy67q4mf. That said, my advice to Lean coaches is to help the middle manager find spaces where instructions are not contradictory and help them lead improvements based on that. As a former middle manager, I found a lot of space where I could do good things absent of contradiction. And I also found spaces where improvement helped erase some of the contradictions.

Stefan Jones May 1, 2019

its a really good piece of work. 

I experience this a lot of times. 

This helps me to understand myself and my situation more clearly. 



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