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Middle Managers–The Pickle In Your Sandwich!

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Mid-level managers—are you one? Mid-level managers are literally the folks in the middle. In some organizations, they report a Vice President while in others an Assistant Vice President or a person on the Executive Leadership team. While there are many factors that impact how and where the M&M’s sit in an organization, the consistent thread is being caught in the middle of the sandwich of upper and lower tiers of people and roles. M&M’s are the one’s that when asked how is it going—undoubtedly I am given the same answer over and over again—Damned if I do and Damned if I don’t.

So what causes this pickle? In one example, Wilma told her staff to go forth and figure it all out. So as the team figured it out and started to move Wilma, on cue Wilma said, “Wait, let’s do this.” At the same time, the M&M in this sandwich was asked on two occasions if he agreed with the plan and both times said yes. Here in lies the rub, M&M’s over time get used to going along to get along. This M&M, let’s call him Fred had gotten so accustom to Wilma jumping in around and on his projects he lost his voice, his creativity, his engagement, and gained anger, frustration, and boredom. Fred shared with me the following example:, “Wilma charged me with giving a presentation to one of our major clients. Each step of the way, I checked with her and we went over the details of the presentation and my key talking points. The day came and as I stood at the front of the room talking, Wilma started to add in extra points. Then by slide 15 of 20 Wilma was sitting in her chair leading the conversation and I became the slide flipper. I was frustrated, angry and embarrassed. If she wanted us to co-present, then she should have just said that from the beginning but to jump in the way she did made me feel like she didn’t trust me and make clear to the clients that she was the point person.”

In this story of Fred and Wilma, we learn that Fred the M&M participates and reinforces his role as the pickle. Perhaps, he didn’t confront because he knew it was a no win, useless, wouldn’t be heard, well that’s the beauty of the M&M they are always stuck and believe they are stuck. Wilma, in her zeal and passion for the presentation did not realize or was conscious of her over stating her role in this conversation. Leaders sometimes forget that just because they have the power to step in and dominate doesn’t mean they should. The amount of money the company now loses everyday Fred is on the job not being fully engaged accumulates as fast as the National Debt.

So what is the M&M to do?  In the Spring edition of the Conference Board Review, there is a lengthy article of the trials and tribulations of today’s M&M. It cites that 64% of M&M’s who fit this profile will not be with the same employer within 2years.  Chances are Fred will not last too much longer with Wilma.  My question to all of you is that When have you felt like a middle manager? I am sure at some point in our lives we have been there and stuck. Instead of looking for Wilma to change or for the organization to hire 10 more people to help us with our job, I challenge you to look within see what you find. Accepting what is instead of focusing on what isn’t or how it should be offers more gifts than not.

About Joy Rain

Joy has been a diversity and inclusion consultant and mediator for over ten years. Prior to consulting, she was professor of Psychology and Women Studies. Joy has a Master of Arts in Psychology (Boston University) and a Master of Education in Social Justice Education (UMASS Amherst).


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