So far, your organization has stepped up or faltered in the face of COVID-19 based on your existing cultural responsiveness to change. Going forward, survival will depend on your ability to evolve your culture itself, attitude in particular, and especially the attitude or mindset of middle managers. Those intermediaries can be helpful, neutral or passive-aggressive blockers.
Culture is, at the same time, the only truly sustainable competitive advantage and the weight that’s going to bring you down if it doesn’t evolve. Per Darwin. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
Let’s focus on the middle.
Our framework for thinking about culture is BRAVE: Behaviors, Relationships, Attitudes, Values and Environment. The middle dimension is Attitude – one’s mental position, feeling or emotion toward a fact or state per Webster. It’s a choice. More than that, it’s a learned, programmed choice. And it doesn’t always match what the CEO thinks is the attitude.
That’s because the choices that matter in this case are the choices made by middle managers.
Again, per Webster, Middle Managers are “management personnel intermediate between operational supervisors and policy-making administrators.”
- Senior Executives like the CEO, C-Suite, and enterprise leaders set enterprise-level policies.
- Functional and Business Administrators like department and business unit heads set functional and unit-level policies.
- Middle Managers intermediate between them and
- Operational Supervisors directly supervise operations.
- Operators actually do the work.
Here’s the thing about intermediaries, interpreters and translators. They can be extremely helpful. They can be neutral. Or they can block things without you even knowing.
Intermediaries and the like acting neutrally simply pass on your communication, direction, etc. without any changes or comments. It gets through as you sent it.
At their most helpful, intermediaries, interpreters and translators modify or supplement your communication and direction to make it easier for their audience to understand, believe and act in the way you need them to act. This is an art born out of knowing what really matters to policy-making administrators and operational people and finding the overlap between the two.
Blocking often looks like passive aggression. Intermediaries and the like may forget to pass on messages. They may delay messages until the right time. They may modify messages saying their particular geography or units are “different.”
They may think they are protecting operators from out of touch policy makers. They make think they are protecting policy makers from irrelevant details. They may be doing it with the wrong intentions. But it’s more likely that they think their actions are actually best for the organization as a whole.
Policies, Guidelines and Mindset
In an earlier article, we explored how to balance policies and guidelines to prompt different levels of employee engagement. Let’s stick with the definitions of policies and guidelines from that article:
POLICY: A mandatory, definite course or method of action that all must follow.
GUIDELINE: A preferred course or method of action that all should generally follow.
That article called out the third approach a principle. Instead, let’s bring in attitude.
ATTITUDE: One’s mental position, feeling or emotion toward a fact or state.
If your middle managers don’t agree with a policy, they will comply – as much as they have to. They’ll block. They’ll go passive aggressive. They’ll do the minimum they can get away with. And everyone working with them will know how they feel.
If your middle managers don’t agree with a guideline, they’ll ignore it as something others should generally follow and their teams should specifically ignore.
Not agreeing is a “mental position, feeling or emotion toward a fact or state.” That’s why any successful cultural evolution has to start by helping middle managers evolve their attitudes.
- Co-create your aspirational future culture. Telling yields compliance. Selling, Testing or Consulting is inviting contribution. If you want commitment, co-create – with your policy administrators AND middle managers.
- Assess your current culture. Together, agree where you are.
- Identify the few most important dimensions to change first – most likely starting with one dimension of attitude.
- Delegate the work to middle managers. Give them clear direction, the resources they need, bounded authority and accountability.
- Follow through to support their efforts. Having delegated the work, your role changes. Do your new job. Not theirs.