Dear Dan – I Feel Caught Between the Boss and Fellow Employees
I wonder if you could provide me some guidance with what I call “The curse of the middleman.” I’m a member of two teams. The team of leaders that run our organization, and the team of people that report to these leaders.
A leader on my team is often hurt when employees approach me with questions, instead of going to them directly. The irony is this same leader tells employees that I am a leader in our organization and to utilize me as a resource.
I strive to build strong relationships with employees, but the success of that work is causing me to fail in another area. At times, there is concern from employees that if they approach the leader, they will get an immediate smack with a bat. Some have been smacked enough, they’ve learned not to approach.
I don’t want to violate the relationships I’ve built, but I’m trying to navigate these waters.
What advice would you give?
Like you, people usually try to do the right thing. It’s always disheartening to have good intentions misjudged. This happens more frequently than you might think. Intentions are invisible. Behaviors are all we see.
We are judged, not by our intentions, but by the intentions others impose on us.
Biggest challenge of feeling misunderstood:
The biggest challenge you face isn’t a fearful boss. It’s loss of enthusiasm.
Loss of enthusiasm becomes discouragement. Eventually, we give less than our best. Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
Tighten your belt and keep doing the right thing with enthusiasm.
Doing the right thing matters most when you’re misunderstood or underappreciated.
The higher you rise in an organization, the more you will be misunderstood. The best you can do is apologize when appropriate and press forward with unaltered enthusiasm.
Adapt to the leader:
People who don’t adapt to the leader always struggle and often flounder.
Perceived threat invites fearful bosses to attack like caged animals. Forget about instilling confidence in a boss who feels threatened, but don’t turn a blind eye either.
- Don’t tell the leader, “You seem threatened by my relationships.”
- Seek advice from your leader. Ask, “What are some ways to respond to co-workers who come to me with their concerns?” Eliminate any resentment or resistance in yourself when you ask for input. You may or may not receive useful advice. It doesn’t matter. You asked.
- Show respect to your leader in public ways. Notice positive qualities. Honor successes.
- Encourage co-workers to go to the leader, even if they feel smacked down. Nothing good comes from undermining your boss, even if they seem inconsistent or oversensitive.
- Send a message to the boss. Ask your co-workers to tell the boss you sent them for input. Give them words like, “I brought this up with ‘the middleman’ and he suggested I should bring it up to you.”
Get out of the middle:
It might be unintentional, but you are the middleman because you put yourself there.
- Release self-imposed pressure to solve other people’s problems for them.
- Reject any internal pressure you feel to speak for others. Speak for yourself and help others do the same.
- Refuse to build relationships for others. Help others build their own relationships.
4 questions for coworkers:
Use questions frequently. Offer advice reluctantly.
- What kind of relationship do you want with the boss?
- What are some possible ways to build a strong relationship with the boss? (Brainstorm ideas. Don’t offer THE solution.)
- What are YOU willing to do to move toward that relationship? (Watch your pronouns. Don’s say, ‘we’.)
- What’s something useful to say when you feel smacked down?
- How can I help? (Be sure to reject any subtle attempts to make you responsible for things THEY need to do.)
Facing the future:
As a rule, the person who gets in the middle – without also having positional authority – loses.
Leaders say they want the truth, but often bristle when they hear it.
Make it a personal challenge to build the strongest possible relationship with the leader. Build a relationship with the leader that allows constructive feedback.
High-level leaders often help others navigate relationships. Use this situation to learn what works for you.
Don’t take sides.
Always act in the best interest of your organization.
Find a new position if you feel you are sacrificing your future.
You have my best,
What would you like to adapt about my suggestions?
What suggestions do you have for the ‘man in the middle’?
Note: I relax my 300 word limit on Dear Dan posts.
In the words of Maria Montessori, “what I do for you I take from you”. I am with you: get out of the middle.
Love the quote, cowsaretheanswer. Cheers
The middle man–leader–needs to do two things:
1. Coach his direct reports (leaders) on how to better handle the issues their employees bring to them. Just smacking employees down isn’t productive or useful. They should be asking a lot of questions and listening. It is always helpful to ask employees what they think the solution is to their problem. More facilitation –no put downs.
2. When an employee to one of your direct reports comes to you with a problem ask–have you discussed this with your leader and what was the outcome? If they haven’t discussed the issue with their leader–they need to do that first.
Thanks Paul. One important thing to add. Coaching isn’t fixing. Coaching is creating space for people to fix their own problems. There might be some advice given, but responsibility stays with the coachee. I imagine you agree, but I wanted to add it for clarity.
Send people to the source of the issue first. Don’t get involved until people have tried to resolve their own issues. “What have you tried,” is one of my favorites.
Yes–I agree. Spot on!
Discuss with the leader the guidelines for when folks should use you as a resource and when they should go to the leader first. Then have the leader clearly communicate those guidelines to everyone. Everyone then knows when to use you as the middleman. And you can send someone on to the leader with the phrase “As per your guidance, I discussed with The Middleman first, and here is where things stand.”
Thanks Jennifer. Your comment reminds me of the importance of building trust with our leaders. They need to know that we have everyone’s best interest at heart.
I’m happiest when I can consider different perspectives than my own. Some of today’s post helps me do just that.
I’m unclear about #2 under Adapt to the Leader. Since the leader in the scenario is problematic, it seems like the asking of advice is solely performative for this leader’s ego. Indeed, my resistance to ask the advice in this scenario is very high. My approach is that my words and actions are purposeful.
Where I see my position is (1) to not complain to the staff about the leader—but to bring solutions directly to the leader, and (2) to listen to the anger of the staff – and redirect their passion into respectful discourse.
Thanks macisaac. I agree that #2 feels awkward. But, it doesn’t have to be perfunctory. It can and needs to be sincere. The leaders response may be surprising.
But, the main reason to ask is political. My thought is to avoid any possible offense – as much as possible. It’s seldom good to cut the leader out, even a lousy leader.
The purpose of seek advice from the leader is twofold then. One, perhaps there will be something useful. Two, observe proper etiquette…. sincerely of course.
You and I agree on not complaining about the leader or anyone to others. Redirect to respectful discourse.
Cheers and thanks again for your thoughtful response.
Thanks for the elaboration.
I know it may sound insincere but I often think performative acts are useful tools. Humans struggle so hard to communicate and we so love jumping to conclusions about someone else’s behavior — we need all the help we can get. Animals use signaling behavior to demonstrate their intentions. It’s a time tested (evolution tested) tool that can be useful without being insincere.
In fact, it can be an example of humility (hmmm, where did I read that recently?). Even the leader who is judged as bad may have thoughtful reasons for their actions. How arrogant of us to assume we know it all without asking.
By being willing to make the situation safe, you signal to the person you are willing to listen. “Hey, Margret, I have a situation I would like your input on. Do you have time?” The conversation starts open and safe. A small amount of trust is built. Maybe it’s the beginning of something beautiful. And even if I don’t agree with the input, I know more than I did before — without adding fuel to the problem.
PS: It can actually be fun.
Thanks Dan! I’ve been caught in the middle a few times over the decades. I tend to speak my mind, hopefully, with respect and the right intent. My fellow associates have come to me with problems & I would try to help solve the problem & often take on the cause for them. This robbed them of the learning opportunity on dealing with issues.
Your advice, as always, is solid.
Thanks Rich. Sometimes sincere leaders try to help too much. This is usually a difficult thing to navigate. Help too much – encourage helplessness. Help too little – discourage people with your disinterest. Perhaps one way to channel our compassion to help people help themselves.