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The Frozen Middle

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Michael Coté and Richard Seroter were kind enough to host the RedMonk team along with Pivotal’s Dormain Drewitz on a recent episode of Pivotal Conversations.

The topic was about the frozen middle, or the difficulty in propagating organizational change throughout a company. The thesis is that grassroots movements from practitioners have a hard time bubbling up through middle management while simultaneously senior leadership’s strategic vision is inadequately translated for the rank and file. The alleged ‘frozen middle’ refers to middle managers who fail to move requisite messages up and down the chain of command.

Richard asked me about the difficulty of incentivizing middle management. During the podcast I speculated that part of the problem may be related to people that feel incentivized to hoard information and organizational knowledge as a source of job security. As we wrapped up the session, though, I had additional realizations about the difficulties in incentivizing middle managers that didn’t make it into the podcast.

What Makes a Good Manager?

While there are plenty of characteristics of a good manager, the following are particularly pertinent to the frozen middle:

  1. Credit is distributed Under a strong manager, the team’s successes belong to the team and individuals are recognized for their contributions. This Harvard Publishing article about middle management leadership describes it as such: “Most successful managers look beyond their own narrow individual contributions to discover broader sources of satisfaction and pride in their team’s collective accomplishments. True power derives from a manager’s ability to establish trust with direct reports, peers, and supervisors.”

  2. Ownership of mistakes. Good managers own their team’s results. Per Tobias Fredberg in HBR, this is the flip side of distributing success; “A leader who spreads the blame, who fails to accept that he or she is ultimately the one in charge, increases the insecurity of their people and lessens the likelihood that they’ll take ownership of initiatives.” As Etsy discovered in establishing their just culture, teams flourish when individuals act without fear of blame.

  3. The shit umbrella. While I agree with Julie Zhuo’s assessment that this term lacks empathy (“It’s not Shit. It’s the energy and chaos and spirit of People Doing what they Honestly Believe is the Best Thing They Could Be Doing”), it is also true that part of a manager’s role is shielding their team from that organizational chaos. This chaos can come from customers, other teams’ requests, conflicting leadership directives, and the tyranny of the urgent over the important, among others. Great managers help their teams prioritize and then buffer the team from any distracting forces that threaten these priorities.

Now imagine the performance evaluation of a middle manager. If the middle manager is good, they will disperse credit for any successes to their team and will own of any issues that arose. On top of that, they are evaluated on how well their team helped the company achieve its strategic vision; to accomplish this, the manager buffered their team from politics/distractions/competing priorities. Oftentimes at least some of the distractions from which the team was shielded had their genesis with the middle manager’s boss, aka the person giving the evaluation. Contrast this with a performance appraisal of an individual contributor, where the employee is incentivized to self-promote their successes, downplay any issues, and demonstrate how their work has aligned with their manager’s wishes.

For a middle manager to succeed, they need to be able to trust that the system is designed to reward these potentially counter-intuitive behaviors. To incentivize good managerial skills, the middle manager must feel secure in their role and senior leadership must be cognizant of team dynamics, including being self-aware of their own impact on the team. An issue of the frozen middle is likely indicative of wider cultural issues that extend beyond middle management. When trying to dismantle the frozen middle it is thus wise to also include assessments of senior managers and the robustness of the HR system.

Disclosure: Pivotal is a RedMonk client.

One comment

  1. You get to the big hammer of solutions there at the end: the middle-manager’s manger is the one who has to tools to fix the problem. I talk with a lot – depressing too many – change agents in organizations who are frustrated at middle-managers and staff resistance to change. By design, the surest, easiest, sanctioned way to change behavior is to change cash pay outs and other compensation based on not only the performance of people (management and staff), but their willingness to adapt and change to new, better ways of operating.

    There’s all sorts of “little and cheap” things to do – giving out plastic trophies, showering people in attention from high-level execs, promises of future cash (see above!), fame and glory internally and externally, or sanctioning goofing off (“we may have a 15 day holiday policy, but, you know, you should leave work at 4 every day”). Matt Curry covers most of those tricks here:

    At the end of the day, though, it’s “leadership” (middle-management’s management) who needs to reward and punish the freezing or unfreezing. If middle-management changes (“unfreezes”), they get paid more. If they don’t unfreeze at least their pay needs to freeze, and at “best” they need to get moved or fired.

    If you look at the patterns of change in most companies going cloud native, they do exactly this. They set up separate “Labs” where the “digital transformation” happens, only moving over people who are willing to change. I’d argue that “skills” have little to do with it: any person in IT can learn new ways of typing and right clicking if the company trains them and helps them (cf.

    What happens is that you cull the frozen people, either leaving them behind in the old org, or just outright firing them. That’s all brutal and not in the rainbows and sandals spirit of DevOps and such, but it’s what happens out there.

    if (C.R.E.A.M.) then { use_cash_to_evoke_cange($middle_manager); } else { gc($middle_manager); }

    This pattern gets more difficult in highly labor-regulated industries – like government work and government contractors – but setting up brand new orgs to shed the frozen old ways is at least something.

    And, as I like to say, if nothing is working and people won’t change (cf., Pivotal is always hiring.

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