Workplace Doctor: Be proactive and ‘do less more’ to shake off middle manager limbo

I often find myself in the classic middle manager limbo. I have all the responsibility but no authority to make people do the job. It means I am often trying to please those above me as well as those below. Consequently my days sometimes feel slightly out of control as they are filled with meetings or taken up with sudden crises. How can I manage my position more effectively? PO, Abu Dhabi

Middle managers typically spin many plates, balancing the weight of delivering results with the unfortunate reality of often being unable to control how they get there. You find yourself frantically influencing and lobbying for support upwards, downwards and horizontally, which can leave you feeling like filling in a sandwich, trying not to get squashed against a mass of multiple demands and competing priorities.

Yet even with this challenging backdrop, middle managers are the engine room of the modern organisation. Relationships between middle managers and their direct reports can make or break an employee’s motivation, productivity, and satisfaction. Their relationship with the leadership team influences the translation and execution of key business priorities and strategy. Unfortunately, although a core part of organisations their needs are often overlooked in favour of senior leaders, potential employees or new graduates. Consequently those middle managers who are successful in moving up to the next rung of the career ladder tend to be the ones who are willing to speak up for themselves and for change.

Being pulled in several directions at once will obviously make you feel disorientated, but embracing your position more effectively is dependent upon regaining the control you have lost. I have long felt that the contribution of “the middle” can be overlooked, and that managers like you need to step back into the limelight and truly believe in their influence. As a hard-working, competent individual you are sure to have respect and authority – you just don’t see it yet.

The first step is to control the speed at which you operate. If you move at the pace of those around you, you will constantly be chasing your tail and getting nowhere. If your boss wants to meet, you drop everything, and if there is a crisis you are the first to dive in – there is no question of your dedication. Your strategy has to be to name your own pace and now there has to be some balance. If people continually push you to fast-forward, you need to be strong enough to fight that pressure on your own terms. Ask yourself if you have the personal capacity to meet a request, or the time to consider the best approach to take. Being reactive currently stretches you to meet the expectations of those above and below you. Could being proactive allow you to exceed them?

Taking back control as a manager not only involves making time to consider new approaches, but assertively managing the expectations of those around you. Delegate successfully to your team by increasing clarity and communication, and plan your priorities with them at least a day in advance to give you the space and time to lead proactively. Give people responsibility, enough time to do a good job, and be clear on the purpose of task, and your team should become a help rather than a hindrance. Making a name for yourself as a developer of people will buy you more of the influence you need.

However, your team are not the only ones who need management. Meetings are important, but if you have other priorities you need to keep your focus. Say no to the meetings you don’t need to be at, or condense catch-ups into 10-minute slots as you grab your coffee. Manage the expectations of your seniors and be clear about how much time they can expect your team to give them. If emerging priorities will squeeze out others, be clear about the knock-on effect it will have on your workload. In the nicest possible way, toughen up and be firm.

To be a successful manager you need to show willingness to make tough decisions that are good for you and the organisation, and that may not always please those around you. Two things can help you here; prioritise what is really important for you, and identify a senior mentor who can champion and coach you based on their own experience of being “stuck in the middle” in the past.

Doctor’s prescription:

The more you squish a sandwich, the less likely you are to want to eat it. You may be wedged between demands from both sides, but there are things you can do to help make life easier. Get your team working to support you, and get into the habit of carving out a regular time slot each day to deal with emerging issues that would otherwise put you under pressure. Try out a new motto and “do less better” – your organisation may thank you in the long run.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Business School, based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues.

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