John’s experience. John had been in that dreadful meeting before, watching the amusement of the vice-president of that megacorporation while thirty of his ‘lieutenants’ brutally shredded project after project.
John knew that getting his project approved would mean hitting the jackpot for his company. Determined to get that Victoria Cross in his career, he began many long and exhausting trips to lobby one by one each of the thirty heavy-caliber directors. When John pleaded to extend the deadline twice, he knew he had strained senior management’s patience, and when his budget neared the bottom vertiginously still without concrete results, they threatened John’s career.
There is a crucial question that lies at the heart of this true story: how can the manager be empowered to succeed in the final stretch, instead of getting the requested time and resources shackled, sealing a sinking fate?
John’s true story in the private sector easily reflects a work dynamic that is pervasive at all scales in the public sphere. An iconic example is the herculean accomplishment of the ex-Toronto Transit Commission’s CEO, Andy Byford. Despite adversity, he made steady progress rescuing the TTC from its frank decline. However, instead of increasing its operational budget for 2016, Mayor Tory imposed an impossible 2.6 per cent cut on the TTC’s depleted budget while requesting the same quality of service delivery.
Away from the media spotlight, middle managers like John live in ‘survival mode’, often pushed to the edge, caught up in both internal and external nasty politics, budgetary cuts, and bureaucracy. Despite knowing they are very close to success, they are forced to constantly add and draw from what Ibarra & Hunter (2007) call personal, operational, and strategic networks, resorting to lobbying whomever is needed to make their projects succeed (and save their jobs, too). “What can I do for you in this company, so that you help me land my project?”, John repeated thirty times.
There is an understandable management-police reflex to progressively constrain the middle manager’s resources when there is progress but still not milestones, or as soon as things get tough, as in John’s case. Stressed, with their resources jeopardized and pressed by senior managers constantly demanding fresh ideas and deliverables, it is not surprising that middle managers hit a meager 5 per cent of satisfaction among all corporate segments, according to Zenger & Folkman (2014).
How can managers power through calculated risk without getting torpedoed? The foundation of a middle manager’s success requires needs to be fulfilled, following Maslow’s pyramid, including adequate emotional and rational management skills. Managers must learn their own rules of survival and success. But a foundation does not make a building; two floors are required: the triad honesty-confidence-capacity, and accountability.
Honesty, confidence, and capacity
The relationship between senior management and middle management must sustain an important dose of trust, built upon irrefutable honesty, confidence, and capacity. Trust smooths the way when senior management is asked for more resources, knowing that middle managers will deliver.
What about when this triad fails to produce trust? Nguyen Huy (2001) found a vicious circle when he studied more than 200 middle and senior managers. Senior managers bear unfounded prejudice against middle managers’ capacity to change, resulting in pervasive distrust as knowledgeable advisors. Middle managers, in turn knowing that they will not be heard, assume a passive, compliant role.
Empowerment can be reconciled with positive outcomes in times of uncertainty by making middle managers accountable. Senior management’s mantra should be: “Middle manager, I trust your capacity, I trust your professional integrity; therefore, I am comfortable with your calculated risk.”
The adjective ‘calculated’ is important. A project is executed according to an established plan, not a fact. Outcomes are not assured until completion and validation. Instead of gambling, middle managers try to minimize negative outcomes while simultaneously trying to leverage better outcomes. Fluid, honest communication with senior management is capital, so that everyone understands the calculated risk and executes actions to maximize the chances of success.
Postscript. Once John finished pitching his project, the vice-president began asking everyone’s opinion. The more answers he got, the more the incredulity grew in his face: one by one, each answered the same “I’m fine with the project”: John had won his career’s Victoria Cross.