Middle managers play a critical role. You are connectors who shape and translate organizational information and culture. You create the conditions for your staff to grow and thrive. You have a unique line of sight to lead reprioritization when crisis hits and an invaluable role when it comes to bridging silos. Put simply: it’s not possible to have equitable, inclusive, and sustainable impact at scale without effective middle managers.
It’s also not an easy job! When you’re in the middle, you’re responsible for your own streams of work, supporting your staff, and staying aligned with and managing up to more senior leaders. On the worst days, middle management can feel like a messy game of telephone. And, during times of crisis, trauma, and uncertainty, the challenges facing middle managers only intensify.
If you’ve ever felt caught in the middle—between expectations from your manager and your team’s realities—here are three strategies to get unstuck.
1. Bridge the Information and Empathy Gap
As a middle manager, you have information about your team and your manager that they don’t have about each other. Sometimes this creates a performance-compassion dilemma—when senior leaders call for higher performance, team members ask for grace and compassion, and middle managers feel stuck in the between. Middle managers need to name team challenges and organizational realities in a way that balances and bridges these different perspectives.
To navigate this dilemma, middle managers need to invest in relationships in all directions. Create space for authenticity in your interactions so team members feel invited to be real with you, build your relationship with your manager and practice perspective-taking, and consider whether skip-level meetings will support bridge-building.
Keep in mind:
Be explicit and real with your team members.
Empathize without over-promising or making senior leaders into villains. If this feels like walking on a tightrope without a net, aim to share as much context about the “why” as possible while acknowledging what your team member is experiencing. Managers at all levels (especially those with marginalized identities) are under pressure to perform—to be confident in the face of uncertainty, know what to do when there are no easy answers, or hold steady in a crisis. It’s hard to be real when facing this kind of pressure, but honesty builds trust, and you can’t be a good bridge without your team’s trust in you.
Build empathy through shared information.
Connect the dots for senior leaders. Let them know your team members are navigating challenges and might have fewer resources and support (including lower salaries) to navigate uncertainties. Be sure to get permission from your team members before you share specific details about their lives. If team members don’t give permission to share, try quantifying team capacity instead (“Due to significant personal challenges, our team is operating at 80% capacity. In practical terms that means we are trying to do 5 days of work in 4 days”).
Try Saying to Your Team Member: “Thank you for sharing what is going on for you. I agree that you have too much on your plate right now. Honestly, I don’t have a perfect solution in mind right now. I’d like to propose a few next steps by Friday and get your input. I will also talk to my manager to get aligned on the expectations. As you know, YYY is the top priority for this year because [explain the “why” here], which means that there may not be much room to adjust, but I still think that the conversation is worth having.”
Try Saying to Your Manager: “I’d like to share what my team is grappling with. In addition to the stresses everyone is facing, each of my team members is navigating a significant personal challenge. Andrea and Sam gave me permission to share. Andrea’s child care center has shut down three times this month for COVID-19, and Sam just moved their dad into their home to provide hospice care. They are managing without extra paid help or family support. As you know, Sam and Andrea contribute to our results in significant ways. I want to make sure that we are aligned on expectations for YYY, and adjust where possible.”
2. Reduce Work (Really)
For social justice and education leaders, work demands often increase during times of crisis, change, and uncertainty. This is especially true for communities furthest from power and resources. Empathy is not enough. When you ask for the same amount of work (or more) after people have shared that they are overwhelmed, their trust in you and the organization is likely to suffer. As demands grow, something usually has to give—and middle managers can lead reprioritization.
Get clear on the work that matters most, shift resources there, and let other things go. As a middle manager, your power lies in your ability to gather information from your manager, your team, and your colleagues, and then use your perspective to make proposals and decisions.
Keep in mind:
Leverage your sphere of control.
What if senior leaders continue to expect the team to meet the same goals? While you may not have the authority to change organizational goals, middle managers often control how your team approaches the work. Start by distinguishing between gold star (where you need to see excellence) and good enough (solid work that hits the must-haves without going above and beyond). If gold-star expectations from your manager make this hard, use our PTR tool to get clear on what’s really required—and where you need to advocate for a break from preference or tradition.
Model renegotiating priorities.
If you want your team to believe that they can reduce and reprioritize their workload, let them see you do it first. Share what you’re taking off your plate or putting on the back burner, and then ask them to consider how they might renegotiate their priorities. Use our check-ins add-on for sample questions.
Try Saying to Your Manager: “In the current rapid response environment, Andres has been working unsustainable hours, as the only member of our communications team. While we’re in peak campaign mode, I’m asking the leadership team to separate urgent requests from non-urgent requests. Andres and I developed a new process. This new approach is essential to our shared commitment to staff wellness and retention. I’m sure we didn’t think of everything, so we’ll seek input to help us refine the process in the coming weeks. I also want to authorize Andres to use self-directed flex time to come in late and/or leave early as long as urgent requests are still replied to within two hours. I checked in with HR and they didn’t see a problem. Do you have any concerns about these changes?”
Try Saying to Your Team: “In the current crisis, we are experiencing an unsustainable volume of work. Please bring two lists to your next check in: first, items on your to-do list that we can move to the “not to do” category; second, proposals for work that can move from a “gold star” to a “good enough” level of delivery. As a quick example of what I mean here, I asked Lionel to change his strategy report from a polished Powerpoint to a 5-minute verbal update. I know that you care deeply about your work and these lists can be difficult to create. Your health, wellness, and sustainability matter to me, and I am here to help. We’ll focus on lowering intensity where we can, knowing that some things will be outside our control.”
3. Set Boundaries
You are human, too! Getting aligned with your manager, your team, and your colleagues (while getting all your other work done) is a lot—which makes boundaries crucial. As you create and maintain boundaries, remember to show yourself the same empathy you show your team. Ground yourself in your purpose, and then reflect on how you prioritize and allocate your time.
Keep in mind:
The way you allocate your time and resources is a choice point, so check for patterns in who you say no to (or who you make time for).
When time is tight, getting input is often the first thing to go. This can lead to inequities and unintended consequences; so prioritize time for seeking perspectives or build this into your regular check-ins.
Try Saying to Your Manager: “I know that you care a lot about sustainability. I also noticed that when you returned from the last two board meetings, you shared five new priorities each time. Can you share more context about the board’s expectations? My request is to find a way to partner with the board to prioritize the most important work, while taking into account the reality on the ground for staff, which would mean saying not now or no to some things.”
Try Saying to Your Team: “Hi team! I’m reserving my Fridays for the rest of this month for focused time to work on YYY, which is my top priority this year. This means that I won’t be taking meetings on Fridays and I’ll limit my work to YYY-related things. If it’s urgent, feel free to chat me. If not, feel free to email me and expect a response on Monday.”