When Management is Caught in The Middle

By, Kaye Vivian, Marketing Communications Consultant

There are moments when anyone in middle management of a firm can feel trapped between an order given by a partner and the staff likely to feel the negative impact of that order. When given such an order, who deserves support more--the boss who controls the manager's destiny with the firm or the staff who rely on and trust him/her to protect their interests?

It's a difficult call. To refuse a partner's directive will create trouble with the partner. To carry it out, however, there's sure to be trouble from the staff below. Professional staff will always recognize when an instruction doesn't make good sense. This can jeopardize a manager's credibility, whether the order appears to come from the manager personally, or whether the manager is seen to be acting blindly on an order. Whenever such an impression is given, the staff usually convert their feelings about the directive into a personal assessment of the manager, undermining the manager's ability to be effective in the future.

There can be repercussions up the heirarchical ladder as well. Other partners and peers often think less of the manager who carries out an order that has a negative impact on the firm or the staff. In addition, particularly in the case where a partner has a history of putting managers into such situations, they may be watching the dilemma and viewing it as a test of the manager's judgment, diplomacy, or even survival skills.

What's the Solution?

When handed a hot potato, the best thing for a manager to do is assume the role of intermediary. The goal is to emerge with reputation, dignity and authority intact. Remain neutral in attitude and convey the instruction, but put distance between the instruction and any personal opinions about it. If a manager can make it clear that he or she questions the instruction as well, but doesn't have the power or authority to change it or ignore it, the staff are less likely to direct any bad feelings toward the messenger.

Avoid bad-mouthing the partner as the source of the directive. It can help to talk to him or her to find out the reasoning behind the instructions. Then convey the reasons to the staff so they can understand the partner's goal. In the role of intermediary, the wise manager can also gather the staff's suggestions, comments and reactions and pass those back to the partner. In the end the instruction may still have to be carried out, but any fallout is likely to be directed to the source, rather than to the bearer of the message.

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