How middle managers can expand their influence

How middle managers can expand their influence

expand influence_Do-Hyun KimAfter my two-week Super Bowl interlude, I’d like to go back and focus just a bit more on our previous ongoing topic: How can middle managers, these most miserable people in our organizations, find meaning and happiness in their work?

So, here is my plan for this blog (which of course may change, as a function of the things I come across in my reading or in my life events): For the next two or three weeks, we look at how managers can be creative in the way they approach their groups, and how this creativity can help them in the quest to find meaning and happiness.

After that, we’ll begin to explore our next topic, one which holds a great deal of interest for me. Other than my reflections on middle managers these past few months, I have been thinking about—and reading or rediscovering a lot of material—around the concept of grit and character versus talent.

In our society, we seem to focus quite a bit on “talent”, on “natural ability”, and on intelligence. Often, I ask myself why we put so much emphasis on these things, since almost all of the research I have seen in this field proves that “grit” (perseverance and passion to improve) is far a better indicator

than “smarts” as a predictor of success in most endeavors. So, this is a theme I would like to delve into in the coming weeks.

A question related to grit is: Just how does exceptional performance happen, in any field? I am convinced a bit more each day that any type of greatness happens more from persistence and the right type of practice than from natural gifts. When I wrote recently about the the achievements of this year’s two Super Bowl quarterbacks—Russell Wilson and Tom Brady—we saw a glimpse of what the latest studies are telling us: natural talent is in fact far less important to uncommon performance than are certain character traits.

Of course, observing great performers in any field relates well to our discussion of middle management. Looking at the methods of outstanding individuals—studying how they learn and practice their way to excellence—can help us to improve in any of our own activities, including leading our groups.

So, back to middle managers. In the January 23, I wrote about reframing the job, and about learning to focus on one’s possibilities rather than dwell on the limitations of the situation.

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of these sorts of changes in mindset. Over my two decades of working with managers in organizations, I have come to believe the following:

—Many, perhaps even most, of a middle manager’s limitations are self-imposed.

—Whether we create self-limiting stories or stories of possibility, these stories will often become self-fulfilling.

—In most situations, managers simply have more influence than they think.

—Whenever you think you are powerless, you will be. This is the ultimate self-fulfilling narrative.

If we can change our mindsets and focus on our possibilities, then we can begin to view management at any level as an exercise in creativity.

Think about this in terms of what the leader of any group does. The most effective ones co-create group cultures with their teams. In his best-selling book, Leading with the Heart, Duke University and USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski writes: “Every year, we create a brand-new culture for Duke basketball.” I have heard former players comment that this is indeed true. Teams are different from one season to the next, and one of the coach’s crucial roles is understanding the group’s members and building the new culture with them.

Just as it is with the coach of a sports team, every middle management job is an opportunity to:

—co-create a group identity, together with the team members

—inspire individuals with a sense of purpose and meaning

engage people in something larger than their daily work

If there is one thing I have spent a good deal of time doing over the years, it is encouraging middle managers to reflect about the journey they are undertaking with their subordinates. In particular, how can they engage the individuals in something larger than the daily work, and what type of group dynamic and culture can they co-create?

A leader’s role, at any level, is not only to make sure the work gets done; it is also to build future stories, narratives about where our team is going, how we interact with each other, why we do things the way we do, and why our work is significant. It is by reflecting on these deeper elements of the job that middle managers begin to create the broader patterns of meaning that will inspire others.

Image: Flickr-user Do-Hyun Kim


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