The men and women that form the midriff of a company are often derided as the “permafrost”. In German they are called “die Lehmschicht” – a stratum of clay in the middle of a company hierarchy that is pretty much impermeable. Nothing gets through. Any flow of information gets stuck.
I think this is thoroughly unfair. Yes, things do get stuck in this part of the hierarchy. And yes, this is frustrating, and it does create risks. But let’s have a quick look at what the men and women in the middle are asked to do on a daily basis in order to keep the flow of information, and thus operations, alive.
The Janes and James Bonds of company communication
Firstly, they are supposed to communicate effectively in both directions along the vertical communication axis – rationally and emotionally. Vis-à-vis senior management, they are to act as knowledgeable advisors, sparring partners and reliable relay stations – forwarding any relevant information and signals that they get from “lower echelons”. In the other direction, they are to convincingly transport and interpret instructions and objectives from senior management and make sure that they are adhered to. Sometimes against their own better judgement. At the same time, they are expected to lead their own reports, making sure they do not only do their jobs properly but also get the space and opportunity to grow and develop.
Additionally, apart from managing, leading and being a role model, they are to effectively contribute to the flow of information in lateral communication relationships, cooperating with colleagues from different silos and areas of expertise, or with external parties. In an international corporation, they are supposed to pull all of that off in more than one language.
Oh yes, and of course they will also have to show that they are mightily interested in building a career and climbing the corporate ladder further, which will require quite a bit of inner dialogue and soul searching, not to mention the odd domestic dialogue on who will drive the kids where and when. And all of this – including upskilling exercises – has to be slotted into or around a 50-60 hour working week.
To master all of that equally well and stay healthy, the “middle people” need a humongous vocabulary, preferably in more than one language, superhuman linguistic skills – verbal and written – , Buddha-like equanimity and empathy, permanent situational presence, and a continuous “observer‘s mind”, i.e. the ability to view things from a meta position at any time. Just to mention a few of the skills required.
So, you might want to take a deep breath and ask yourself whether these men and women are really the permafrost or rather the Jane and James Bonds of company communication.
Building the New World of Work from the middle
None of us is born with all the skills and capacities that are required to master all of that smoothly and flawlessly on a daily basis. Most of us do not learn any or much of this in school or at university. I thus have enormous respect for anyone in such a position who shows up every day and does her level best.
Instead of complaining about the seemingly impermeable middle layer, companies would thus be well advised to think about how they can support these men and women in navigating through the company matrix. These efforts would, of course, include everyone who is responsible for designing “the world of work”, but also every single employee above or below the “company equator”.
On both sides of the equator it would, for example, be helpful to work on one’s listening skills as well as the ability to express oneself clearly, or on asking questions instead of making assumptions about what could have been meant. Thus, the people in the middle (as well as anybody else) would be less in the dark when trying to understand and deal with the expectations and needs around them. This would save the entire company an enormous amount of energy. It would also help to prevent risks associated with assumptions and communication “misfires”.
Those who are tasked with designing the world of work, in which capacity whatsoever, might want to think about the skills and support middle managers really need in order to navigate through the communication maze of a complex (international) organization with aplomb. The kaleidoscope of possible support and upskilling measures must of course also fit your company set-up and culture. However, designing them with a focus on making the flow of information smooth and easy is a good starting point.
Going the Full Monty
All the more so, if you think about solving the “permafrost” problem by doing away with some layers of hierarchy – usually somewhere in the middle. Because eliminating a layer of hierarchy does not eliminate the communication complexity the “middle people” have to deal with today. It just shifts it to a different layer. And actually, eliminating a layer might increase your complexity-related risks here and there. Because in doing so, you reshuffle the interfaces between those in the remaining layers, who, for various reasons, might be even less well equipped to effectively communicate with each other.
Now, if you think about going the full monty and flattening the corporate hierarchy down to, say, self-steering teams, the communication complexity burdening the middle managers today will then have to be mastered by every single employee. After all, no matter how much you streamline your hierarchy, the buck will still eventually have to stop somewhere and someone will have to make decisions and be accountable. The more “democratic” decision-making becomes, the more it will be based on negotiations, agreements, and an effective dialogue and knowledge transfer between various experts, irrespective of any rank. A workforce that is not able and enabled to constructively engage in such decision-making processes will not be able to navigate, let alone thrive, in a “self-steering” world.
So, finding ways and means to give love and support to the men and women in the middle is not only the human thing to do, it is also a perfect training ground for a new world of work, which, in the final analysis, is about a new way of cooperating and dealing with each other.
© Sabine Breit