World peace through middle management

Jul 21 2008 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Read enough books and articles about management development and you'd think the fate of the Western World hangs in the balance. Actually, it's more important than that - after all a good bit of the world isn't Western and frankly doesn't care how we fare.

One thing that is consistent around the world is the need for good managers and management development. A few good management practices could save us from a lot of the trouble the world is in now.

Before I get fitted for my Prophet's robes and you all start erecting statues to my memory, allow me to explain what I'm talking about. The world, as we know it, is obviously the result of poor Upper Management.

Without naming names, the Galactic CEO for lack of a better term (for starters there is no consistent, world-wide naming protocol - a sure recipe for disaster) has done a number of things that no good manager would stand for, and most would have lost their jobs long ago.

Let's take a simple example: Australia. Ever watched a nature show from Down Under? It's apparent from the statistically unlikely and fragile wildlife there that one of two scenarios occurred:

  1. The Australian Office's R and D department didn't have sufficient discipline to pull the plug on an experiment when the rest of the world obviously decided pouches weren't practical. A simple Stage-Gate process would have saved thousands of years of wasted evolution. Surely the Platypus budget could have been better spent?
  2. Marsupials actually WERE a better way to go but the team lacked sufficient influencing skills to convince the rest of the organization. The corridors of Microsoft are littered with the bodies of people who suffered a similar fate- I mean surely SOMEONE noticed that LiveMeeting wouldn't work with Vista - right?

Many of the problems in this world can be traced to poor execution and communication of strategy. Never mind that there isn't one cohesive mission statement. Even the guidelines we get are not communicated effectively. Let's take a simple example: The Ten Commandments.

You'd think they would be very effective. A nice, simple list of behaviors that will and won't be tolerated. Pretty much a consultant's dream. The problem is that, as any Middle Manager will tell you, there are no metrics attached.

"Thou Shalt Not Kill" fits nicely on a coffee mug (or two stone tablets) but what, precisely, does it mean? Does it mean you shouldn't kill anything? In that case your cheeseburger puts you at risk of disciplinary action. Does it mean you just shouldn't kill people? At all? Ever? Just those who don't look like you? Just those who take the yogurt out of the Breakroom refrigerator when it's obviously not theirs?

It's a lovely goal, just not a SMART one. And who is accountable for the results?

"Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife" sounds pretty straight forward but it's hard to legislate thought. A Good diversity trainer will tell you, "it's okay to 'feel' that way, but it's how you act on it that matters". Especially at the annual Holiday party.

Okay, blaming senior management, while satisfying, doesn't change the situation - what do we do about it? Allow me to offer a humble suggestion; let some empowered Middle Managers run things for a while.

Take the Middle East- always a touchy situation. Any group of Middle Managers, if they've had enough corporate training shoved down their throats, would know how to solve the problem:

  • Look at the different conflict resolution models and understand that none is wrong, just maybe not appropriate to this situation
  • Use "and" instead of "but" when speaking
  • Hold the meeting at a generic, low-rent hotel near the airport. After three days of that food and stale air people will agree to anything just to make the meeting end. Hundreds of strategic plans a year get approved that way

Oh and wouldn't it be great if we could offer the government of wherever we live 360 degree feedback? Sure, there are elections (if you're lucky enough to live in a country that has them) but those work like most feedback at work - you only ask your own direct reports, people know the answer you expect, half the people don't participate and, like all performance reviews, they don't happen nearly often enough.

There are other Middle Management practices I could suggest - solving the demands for energy through Six Sigma, for example, or using "Zero Based Budgeting" in allocating scarce resources.

If you listen to the devotees, authorities and gurus of these middle management 'best practices', you would think they can solve almost any problem. At least that's what it says in the course catalogue I got from HR.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.