Marine Sgt. at New Orleans, La. By Howard R.Hollem. Library of Congress collection via Flickr.

How to Break Through the “Impermeable Clay Layer” of Middle Managers

Forrest ChristianChange, Managing 3 Comments

In the last post on implementation, APFG commented that the middle layer in the company is where you have most of the problems. Since almost everyone says this, let’s take a look at why.

Let’s admit that it is not always true: the middle layer in a company isn’t always the source of the problems. There are often people at the top who are resistant to change and there are people at the bottom who resist change, while the middle embraces it. But maybe a quick review for me to see what I know about this topic. I’d hate to call it “resistance to change” because I’ve already sounded off against that so often that I’d be foolish to use it now. Besides, I don’t like it. Let’s table the name for now and I’ll try to get back to it.

I’d bet that Jerry Harvey’s “anaclitic depression blues” has something to do with it. Harvey calls it “a form of depression that occurs when an individual, organizational structure, or idea that we lean on for emotional support is taken away from us.” Its causes include “A re-organization over which those who are being re-organized have no control; a layoff; or the kind of lousy, anti-requisite organization that Elliott Jaques talks about.”

Let’s face it: when we are invited into a company as consultants, we’re not going in to a great company. Great companies rarely need consultants. Most of the time we are going into a company that is resoundingly anti-Requisite where people have been reorganized time and time again, or had change forced down their throats, and where management wrecks apart groups that coalesce into strong work teams. I’d say that all of this qualifies as anticlitic depression blues (ADB) making material.

Middle managers may be more likely to have ADB than the top of the bottom. Middle managers have often gotten to where they are by buying into the system more so than upper managers or the bottom. Lower level workers don’t have enough information to really understand what the corporate values really are, except that they get shafted a lot. The top still dream of big things: most in the executive suite can make a reasonable case to themselves for becoming part of what Art Kleiner calls the in-crowd of the organization. (See “Are you in with the in-crowd?” in the May[?] HBR or Kleiner’s book.)

Middle managers grew to their positions by following the value system extremely closely. This leads them to become Defenders of the Faith, as it were, even though they don’t like it.

Come to think of it, it’s not that the lower rung isn’t accepting of change but that most of the changes that we’re talking about don’t affect them all that much. That is, their chances for advancement aren’t going to look substantially different in a requisite organization than in a non-RO. They hate change all the time, which is why you have to introduce a new process with care.

Still, we have the middle managers, most of whom will not advance beyond where they are and who know that they are currently in positions that they are incompetent to fill. If I come in with a Real Boss theory, I will threaten them. They have based their lives and futures, including the futures of their children, on a system that I say needs thrown out. I will be threatening them with the Anaclitic Depression Blues. It takes a long time to get out of the shadow of that threat.

Let’s say that I am a grade 4 manager whose job is Str III but I’m StrII. I’m getting paid for StrIII work even though I’m only doing it at StrII. I have a mortgage and the kids’ college tuitions based on what I am currently earning. You threaten to reduce my wages. That’s not fair! Sure, I know that you are paying me more than I am worth. That’s why I don’t leave and why I get rid of all the people underneath me who might show how little I really do. Sure, it would be for the good of the company and shareholders if I worked at the right level, but it won’t be for the good of me. And everyone knows that no one works for shareholders.

If you have a radically non-Requisite structure, you will have a dickens of a time getting it straightened out. Let’s take BIG for an example. BIG’s IT group used to do MIS: straightforward management of mainframes. Any innovative new systems were more or less created by teams of outside consultants from the large programming firms. Persnicketty mainframe problems were solved using high-end consulting technicians from the mainframe vendors.

This organization required nothing more than StrIII: a real manager who could set yearly budgets and goals, with some department heads and then workers. There wasn’t any innovative or high-level work that needed to be done. So you have a CIO at StrIII and people below that. It worked great.

In the 1990s, upper management got hit with the big Internet surprise, and this Internet thing — well, by 1998 they’re pretty sure it’s going to take off. They need a highly mobile, innovative, responsive and creative IT organization that can rewrite a lot of their twenty to thirty year old applications to work in the more decentralized world. Unfortunately, they asked their existing IT structure to handle it. They ended up with an explosion of staff (currently about 5,000 with another 3,000 externals across the US) doing several concurrent 3-5 year projects. All being managed by a StrIII CIO.

Cascade this down. Imagine that I used to be a StrII manager with StrI subordinates (and an occassional higher mode one that I would try to pawn off on another team or get fired). The management asked me to put together a team of programmers to do a 3 year project. I hire the people I can manage. Which means the project fails miserably, at least in 100% overruns and us having to call in external consultants to save it. Now repeat all across the organization. Even HR wouldn’t be much help if they were the ones hiring because I don’t want people who are “too smart for their own good”; that is, higher stratum than I am.

There was no way to use the existing management structure or people to do the job that they needed done. They needed to hire a new IT management staff from outside the company. This went against company norms and mores.

Repeat this in every part of the firm.

If I come in there and say that I have a theoretically strong change program to create a sound, working IT organization, it will be strongly fought against. And this is just IT, a non-money making part of the company! Managers will resist the change because I threaten to take away the foundations for their beliefs, to expose them as lies or untruths.

If the entire organization is like this, then a Real Boss manager-subordinate dyad will exist only part of the time, and it is almost impossible that any MOR-MGR-SUB triad will exist. Which is what exists.

All of this is paranoigenic. So add paranoia to ADB and you have most of middle management in many large companies.

Don’t think that having a successful implementation in one part of the firm will result in those practices spreading across the other parts. Again, let me mention Saturn, the New Kind of Car Company that was so successful that GM bled it dry, giving all its development monies to Buick and Oldsmobile. Olds is more or less gone and Buick will soon join it. The GM CEO and his staff could not resist the political clout of the heads of Buick and Olds. Saturn ended up losing all the budget that it needed to develop new lines, which is why it took until they more or less became another GM line to get a redesign of their cars. (They are now built on GM frames like other lines.) Saturn’s success came at the cost of the rest of GM: buyers who wanted a foreign car quality but also wanted to buy American bought in droves, taking share away from GM’s other lines. Why that would threaten Buick and Olds, I’m not sure: that’s a different market. But both companies were bleeding badly from the increased pressure of both the Europeans and the Japanese at the sub-Cadillac level. Camry and Maxima became respectable replacements for the more staid Buick and Olds. Saturn’s success showed the core problems at GM. Which meant that it had to be killed.

Other companies have this story, too. Block tells of a site of a large multi-national that tried some innovative management practices and saw productivity and income skyrocket. The company shut down the experiment.

Starting at a particular site as a test won’t necessarily work.

We need to acknowledge that we really do sound like religious fanatics to other folks when we start talking about Jaques. I should table that for later, but it’s certainly true. It is indeed like having the beginnings of medical science as opposed to bloodletting. Certainly, we can go overboard in tossing out things that don’t need to be thrown out but we’re still better off than the leech-based system of management that we currently have.

So I didn’t answer any of my own questions except to say that part of the greater issue of Resistance is the current paranoiagenic practices and the effects of threat of the Anticlitic Depression Blues.

Image Credit: Marine Sgt. at New Orleans, La. ca. 1941-1945 by Howard R. Hollem. Library of Congress collection.

Comments 3

  1. Paranoiagenic practices and anaclitic depression blues? I think not! What is being described here, as disjointed as it appears, may represent examples that could be pointed to in many dysfunctional and antirequisite organizations, granted however it is nonetheless very disjointed and not somewhat irrelevant.

    Consider that those in SI positions, consistent with any other hierarchical stratum will resist change to the extent that they can’t rationalize the need for change or where they fit into the change process. What’s missing here? Context. To suggest that the “lower rung” (I assume this denotes SI) don’t have enough information to understand what the corporate values really are is preposterous. The values, the culture, and the myths that reside in respect of these manifest themselves, among other levels, at the execution level within the organization. This is to say if one truly wishes to understand the values in an organization go and observe the execution of the work at the “lower rung”. Understand what myths exist at this stratum in the organization and there will be a reasonable interpretation available in terms of what strengths and weaknesses reside with respect to the organizational culture and the value system the organization projects. Most corporate executives will articulate that they value people yet the social systems and behaviors in the organization often suggest the opposite. To assert that employees at SI will not be affected that much by introducing RO is a fantasy. These individuals derive the same benefits from requisite managerial practices when compared to other levels and their chances for advancement do improve, recognizing that the MOR/ SOR role relationship is one of mentoring, development and career planning. Similarly, all employees benefit substantially from clear task assignment (cpQQT/R), coaching, and personal effectiveness review. In addition context setting and two-way teamworking are essential to the effectiveness of these individuals as much as any other. In fact the objective associated with the implementation is to liberate this group so that they can execute the work effectively and derive the accompanying satisfaction associated with applying one’s full potential at work.

    Rather than go on any more at the moment I’ll see what reactions this invokes coupled with the final thought that great companies do need consultants. They appreciate the value proposition that can be generated by the surgical application of a specialized service to generate a specific outcome.

  2. Post

    My point about Stratum one workers is that they are very unlikely to be threatened by any move towards create requisite structures because they are more likely not being overpaid (at least in the States) or have powers that will be taken away. Unions and other forms of combined bargaining groups would, of course, have reason to feel threatened, and the Australian experience has borne this out. These folks are usually so far from decisions (even those that they should own) that they really don’t represent much about the company’s culture: you’d never know that companies tend to work for the pleasure of a few from the people five levels down.

    Middle managers are often promoted beyond their abilities. Most movements toward RO are not to help promote competent people but to prevent the placement of people incapable of performing the role tasks.

    I’m not arguing that stratum I workers would not benefit from having a more requisite structure and work practices: indeed, they would have a great deal to gain from having a Real Boss. They would not, however, have as much to lose as those in middle management (those from the CEO to the stratum one jobs). Middle managers will lose the structures upon which they have built their careers. Even if these structures work against them, humans have shown a marked propensity across history — and certainly modern times — to defend practices that they have invested in. If they CEO has created the organizational structures through years of hard work, he or she will also be very resistant to any ideas that would call those into question. People resist changes to their enviroments that threaten them: they do not resist change entirely. Middle managers have invested a great deal, including personal psychic energy, in forcing their lives to conform to the non-requisite practices of the organization. They have become the true believer. In this, they become more attached to core cultural values, these unstated values that usually contradict spoken ones. Lowest level workers are often more detached because of a war with management, which explains why unions have been able to exist.

    There will be some who have stratum 1 “deputy” roles who would lose those positions. But they will be few in number. Most of those on the front line would not lose anything from reogranizing to RO, unless the reorganization failed and the company went under.

    If RO were easy to get to, we’d see scads of requisite companies because it solves a lot of thorny organizational problems. Even felt-fair pay would go a long way. But we don’t because we as societies have built up a long list of kluges that people have lifetimes invested in. I’m not about to say that something I have invested my entire past and future should be overturned. If you want to restore managerial judgment to an organization, you have to wage a wily war against a multitude of strongholds particular to that company.

  3. On the basis of this excellently written blog, I went and bought the cited book:
    “How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back My Fingerprints Are on the Knife? : And Other Meditations on Management”

    It was a bit of a shock ( a measure of my naivete!) to see how managers of Stratum I – II *don’t* want someone competent, but someone who is less competent than they!

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