Despite the critical nature of their role as connectors, middle managers continue to receive far too little attention and are often among the most disconnected and disempowered employees in any organization. You can tell you have a challenge with this community when you walk the halls, tour the floor or visit the cubicles and notice lack of eye contact and a low level of vitality. Middle managers who are heads down and hiding from those above and below are not likely to be driving high performance. Organizations and their senior leaders need to change the way they view, manage and communicate with this vital constituency, and that begins with understanding the performance benefits that can be gained from releasing this bottled-up reservoir of underutilized capability and engaging it in the transformation process.
It is not hard to detect when a team, or an organization, goes sideways. There are usually plenty of warning signals and symptoms. The only real surprise is how easy it seems for some leaders to ignore them. Symptoms include – cliques, sub groups or coalitions of mixed loyalty begin to form and work at cross-purposes; side deals are negotiated outside of the full team; directives from the top go unanswered or are regularly second-guessed; lack of candour causes the really important and meaningful conversations to go underground; lack of self-regulating, self-aligning team discipline results in missed deadlines and conflicting priorities become common and, sometimes, outright sabotage can occur.
Leaders have to be held accountable for dealing with ugly reality. We know that when a brand loses its lustre and finally deteriorates, the signs and signals were there for others to see long before the demise. People move on to new and more beneficial places and away from bad brands when it suits them to do so, and they do not usually give advance notice. An organization therefore needs to listen to the soft footsteps that mark the early warning signs of a loss of reputation, credibility and brand value.
Ask any CEO to describe, in detail, the knowledge transfer process within their organization. Ask them to explain the metrics they have in place to ensure that the process is effective and how those metrics have trended in recent years. Ask that same CEO who is responsible and accountable for the knowledge transfer process. Ask them what rate of return they are achieving on their human capital. Finally, ask them how much they invest every year in the knowledge transfer and development process, and how they determine whether or not they are receiving good value in return
Despite all the frameworks, theories and elaborate models available to help guide and educate leaders about high-performance team effectiveness, leaders still seem to fall into one of two basic camps – those who believe they already have a highly effective senior team but who, in reality, do not, and those who know they have an ineffective senior team, but are afraid to do the hard work necessary to fix it. The former just don’t seem to be aware enough, or perhaps just don’t care to see the facts staring them in the face. They just carry on, not fully appreciating the cost of their own ignorance. Strangely, the latter group somehow find it easier to replace individual members of the team, in a wild game of Russian roulette, rather than fix the cracks in the fundamental foundation.
Conflict avoidance and superficial congeniality (to quote Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric) is an odd and twisted form of logic. It might have worked well enough when our competitors were half asleep, the economy was booming and higher rates of inflation conveniently covered the cost of some of our business sins, but it is not good practice when the stakes are as high as there are now. This is when it really matters, when the going gets tough and the game gets ugly.