When I was first promoted from the rank and file, there was a popular song by Stealers Wheel entitled “Stuck in the Middle with You”. The lyrics resonated with me because I was struggling mightily with being a newly minted manager. Here is a verse that was particularly meaningful to me –
Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you
And I’m wondering what it is I should do
It’s so hard to keep the smile from my face
Losing control, yeah I’m all over the place
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
© 1973, Gerry Rafferty
Of course the “you” I was stuck in the middle with was me. I was written up twice within my first several months for insubordination and failing to carry out managerial directives. That clearly points out how unhappy my boss was with my performance. Unfortunately, my former peers were angry with me too. I had “abandoned” them and wasn’t helping improve their situation.
At that point I hadn’t figured out it was not possible to maintain the status quo in relationships with co-workers. I thought I had a really neat chance to express all the frustrations they felt to my boss and get the system changed. Unfortunately she saw my role differently and was determined that I implement upper management policy. My big mistake has been clearly expressed by Bill Cosby – “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to please everyone.”
So there I was with “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right… stuck in the middle…”. Over twenty-five years later I have come to understand that the position of first level supervisor is one of the most difficult in the business world.
In order to get unstuck you must first understand that, while your friendships and maybe even loyalties might be with the hourly crowd, you are now part of management. Your primary responsibility is to ensure whatever policies, directives, orders and notions trickle down your way get implemented to the best of your team’s abilities. In some sense it’s a mindset. You must come to think of yourself differently. That doesn’t mean strutting like a peacock, ruling the roost. Put more simply, you must recognize things have changed. Understanding all the skills in the work and/or expertise in the product of your team are not enough anymore.
Knowledge is certainly important. Coupled with performance, your understanding of your team’s mission is probably what got you promoted. But it won’t keep you employed now, because expectations of you have changed. It isn’t enough to simply know how everything works. Now you have to deal with sometimes conflicting interests. So how do you manage the middle ground once you recognize that’s where you are?
To succeed you must understand the importance of communication or as Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “…the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”
There are three components necessary for mastering the communication skills you need to maintain the middle ground without losing control.
- Make people feel important. Possibly the most universal character of mankind is the desire to be seen as valuable or important. Think of how you feel when someone discounts you, makes you look foolish or talks down to you. Everybody knows these feelings. It follows then that people will be more responsive to you in direct proportion to the degree you make them feel important.Les Giblin in his book, “Skill With People,” expressed this clearly:
“The most universal trait of mankind – a trait you and everybody else have – a trait so strong that it makes men do the things that they do, good and bad – is the desire to be important, the desire to be recognized… Remember the more important you make people feel, the more they will respond to you.”
The skills involved here are to listen skillfully, compliment frequently, call people by name, pause before answering, use “you” and “your” more than “I” and “Me” and attend to every individual in a group.
- Agree with People. Quoting again from Les Giblin, “As long as you live, never forget that any fool can disagree with people and that it takes a wise man, a shrewd man, a big man to agree – particularly when the other person is wrong.” Being agreeable is possibly the most effective strength a middle manager can develop to maintain position.These skills involve focusing on being in an agreeable frame of mind. Be open in your agreement; when you agree with someone tell them. Unless absolutely necessary, do not publicly disagree with someone. Avoid arguments. By the same reasoning, when you are wrong, verbalize your mistake – own it.
- Master the skill of Listening. To make proper decisions you must clearly understand a situation. To fully understand you must have the people involved share their perspective. For people to talk openly, they must feel heard. For them to feel comfortable, you must be a skillful listener.There are two main attributes to being a skilled listener. The first is body language. Look at the other person. Sit on the same level with him or her, shoulder-to-shoulder. An imaginary line drawn between the points of the four shoulders should form a square. Lean in slightly toward the other person. If you do these three things – eye contact, squaring and leaning in, your body will strongly communicate attention and interest.
The second attribute to effective listening is your verbalizations. Ask questions that are on-topic. Use the words “you” and “your”. Reflect back what you believe you heard in short summaries. This will demonstrate you are listening and allow others to clarify anything you missed.
By practicing and becoming skillful in these steps you will make the “clowns to the left of you and jokers to the right” develop into a team. You will find you are not stuck in the middle, but at the center of an exciting dynamic team.