For middle managers, the power is in translation

January 12

Are you a manager in the middle? Do you experience demands from the top at the same time you hear concerns from the bottom? Do you often feel ignored or dismissed?

Being a manager in the middle isn’t easy. Middle managers can feel caught in a vice — squeezed together by the top and bottom — or pulled apart. Neither of these are positions of strength, which may be why middle managers have traditionally been a bit looked down on.

Middle managers are often seen as organizational bloat to be downsized, or as resisters of change or even as managers who merely do what they are told and nothing more. Middle managers are rarely given attention within the organization.

That is, until now. What more middle managers are realizing is that their positions are powerful ones. The middle vantage point allows them to understand more about what’s going on in the organization than those at the top or bottom. Through the teams that they manage, they touch many stakeholders in the company and can feel the pulse of the marketplace. They can see the bigger strategic picture on the horizon and can identify operational issues. More than ever before, this “middleness” places them in a position of integration and synthesis. Out of middleness come opportunities and challenges.

The opportunities lie in the changes middle managers can craft; so do the challenges. More often than not, the charge given to them is simple, yet paradoxical, as in “change but don’t change” or “fix it but don’t break it.” They are responsible for helping their companies change, but at the same time they must meet current business goals. That mission, impossible as it might seem, can send a middle manager’s head spinning.

So what’s a middle manager to do? The role of translator is a new leadership paradigm for middle managers. Being a translator means being an interpreter. When we think of an interpreter, we usually think of someone who is literally converting a message from one language to another, word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase. Often a word-for-word translation would result in a nonsensical statement, so the interpreter understands and distills the essence of the message into a language that the listener understands.

Middle managers sometimes forget that they have the ability to put their own spin on a top directive. This does not mean ignoring the essence of the directive. It does mean putting the message in their own words, or terms, so that it becomes meaningful to them and to those they work with.

In fact, being a translator is a two-way interaction. A huge advantage of being a manager in the middle is access to those in the organizational trenches. These are the folks who know what is going on day to day and can tell a middle manager in no uncertain terms whether an idea will fly.

The famed GE Workout strategy of the 1990s was based on tapping into the knowledge of operating workers to improve efficiencies. Such seamless back-and-forth between top and bottom also means middle managers must be multilingual. They need to speak the language of top management as well as that of others lower down in the company. They need to understand strategic thinking and the language of finance, accounting, marketing, operations and human resources.

To become effective translators, middle managers also need to act in ways different than those implied by traditional models of change. What middle managers want to know is this: What do I do day to day, minute by minute, to move the company forward? Being a translator is what positions a middle manager to best answer that question. This is where the power of being a translator lies — in real time, every day, through decisions and interactions these managers have with their teams.

Lynn A. Isabella is an associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. She will co-teach the Darden Executive Education course “Leading Teams for Growth and Change” with U.S. Olympian rower Daniel K. Lyons Feb. 17-21 in Tampa.

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