Solution Saturday: Swimming in Dangerous Waters

Dear Dan,

I am new to a leadership position and am learning a lot from you. I have managers above me and find it hard to manage. Is there a way you could address how to handle your own managers in some posts?

Some things look good on paper (well, on screen for that matter) but are not practicable with supervisors. I find it difficult to voice my opinions sometimes and am not sure how to implement your ideas without swimming in dangerous waters.

Swimming in the Middle


Dear Swimming,

Thank you for your email and your kind words.

I’m impressed with your comittment to be a person who takes action.


Mid-level managers (MLMs) are one of the most underappreciated over-stressed groups in organizations. Google tried to eliminate managers. Six weeks later they reinstated them. (Work Rules!, by Laszlo Bock – head of people operations at Google.)

Just how important are you? Gallop reports that engagement is 2% for employees who are ignored by their managers. When it comes to innovation and change, the most important factor for success, after senior executives, is MLMs.

“MLMs serve as levers of change, influencing those above and below them in corporate hierarchy.” (New Research: What Sets Effective Middle Managers Apart, Behnam Tabrizi HBR.)

Managing up:

Your comment regarding the dangers of speaking up, “Swimming in dangerous waters,” speaks to the the attitude of upper management. Upper managers should make it easy for you to speak up. But, sadly, not all do.

Listen to danger. If you ignore the danger of offending upper-management, you may not last long.

Overcome fear with a deep commitment to do what’s best for your team, managers, and organization. Ask yourself, ‘How might I add value in this situation?’

#1. Utilize forward-facing curiosity. Leaders spend way too much time focused on past problems and way too little describing and working toward the future.

When you sense danger or resistance, ask managers about their future goals.

  1. What are you trying to accomplish in this situation? (Adopt an open learners attitude. Don’t be accusative.)
  2. What issues might we encounter as we move forward?
  3. What’s important to you?

Reflect on the type of questions you ask. Are you looking toward the future or the past. Forward-facing curiosity enhances your authority. On the other hand, you look weak when all you ask about is the past.

After asking questions, listen. Listening is your most powerful tool of influence. If you want your managers to listen to you, make sure they feel heard first.

#2. Practice transparency. Secrets are dangerous. Discuss the same issues with several managers. Don’t play them against each other. Seek several viewpoints.

Bring up differences of opinion when all parties are present. Be kind, open, and honest.

When you see inconsistencies, ask for advice. Don’t complain that management seems to be inconsistent. You might ask, “How might I deal with differing opinions between upper managers?”

#3. Understand and adopt the greater goals of upper management, even if you might disagree with their methods. What does upper management want? Profitability, employee productivity and retention? Perhaps the most important thing upper managers want is to look good to the executive team.

Help your managers get where they want to go, as long as it won’t do damage.

#4. Press through fear. It’s healthy to listen to fear. Only boldness builds the future you aspire to create.

  1. Courage is often a function of the people around us. What courageous person might you invite into your inner circle? What might you learn from them?
  2. Preparation answers fear. How might you prepare yourself for anticipated danger?
  3. Real courage does more than confront. It’s compassionate as well.
  4. Tell your managers what you intend to do. Don’t ask permission. When you’re concerned about the impact of your actions, say, “I intend to….” Ask for their suggestions.

I want to say again, there is nothing wrong with feeling apprehensive about speaking up. I find that some of the most successful leaders I know are cautious. Their success depends in some degree on the sector where they work. You may be a person who likes to think everything through. (Perhaps too much?) Whatever you do, find a small imperfect step forward.

What suggestions do you have for Swimming in the Middle?

*I relax my 300 word limit on Solution Saturday.

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