Smart Managers Don’t Play Monkey in the Middle

Do you remember playing that kid’s game, Monkey in the Middle where you were caught between two people (in my case, taller, older, teasing siblings) trying to catch what was being tossed back and forth? It was frustrating and often futile.

I was reminded of this game recently by a client’s situation. The middle manager I coached really did feel frustratingly stuck in the middle. On the one hand, she had a team of professionals who were fatigued, unmotivated and disempowered. On the other, was the boss who’d hired her to breathe new life into the team? Within a few weeks she knew what she had to grab hold of. The boss, a dedicated professional who’d climbed the ranks, was constantly meddling in her team’s work. And, in an industry run on tight deadlines, he was notorious for making last minute changes.

What to do? She wouldn’t risk telling the boss to butt out – it really was obvious his aim was to improve quality and inspire people with his changes. Still, her staff would stay inertly frozen until she got this under control. After all, they reasoned, why try harder if it’s all going to be changed after all?

Leaders might make the mistake of playing monkey in the middle. In this scenario, the key is to avoid becoming the third party in a drama triangle. Already people are feeling victimized and vilified. If you become the hero, the victim and the villain roles are how the others will excuse their dysfunction.

Your best move is to step away from choosing sides, and take time to make visible the complex realities of the workplace. Become a bridge across – instead of a monkey in the middle.

Talk with your team in a way that acknowledges their frustration with last-minute changes, and get familiar with the real impact on workload and personal balance. It may frustrate them that hierarchy trumps, but remind them of a time the boss’s changes were professionally astute. Tell them you will be working on their behalf to ensure fewer interruptions. Ask them to talk more about the creative and solid thinking that powers their work so that you can firmly advocate “no change” with senior leaders. At the same time, be clear that a job requirement is that they be flexible and responsive, whether the change comes from the boss or from an important customer. You will not be able to stop all emergent change, and they need to be prepared to deal with it.

When you talk with your senior leader, be sensitive to possible causes of his disruptive behaviour. It could be a habit, born of disorganization and distraction. Maybe he’s not taking time to look at your team’s work until the 11th hour. Your solution is to schedule more formal “check ins” earlier in the process. In your one-on-one meetings, explain that you are committed to good planning so as to keep unnecessary stress and overtime out of the system. Discuss a mutually acceptable cutoff period for input. Be sure to draw attention to all the ways your team members demonstrate flexibility and responsiveness.

It may be that this leader feels obliged to add value by critiquing work, or offers opinions to prove he deserves top spot. Are there other avenues to showcase his brilliance? Perhaps you can schedule mentoring meetings with your staff.

Finally, learn to negotiate. The next time a last-minute request comes, stand up (in private) to challenge the wisdom of the change. Talk specifically about the negative staff impact and the risk vs. the perceived value of the change. Ask if it’s worth it. Strongly advocate for your staff’s work to stay unchanged, as a way to empower, engage and energize the team.

Over time, you will see that being a bridge-leader, instead of the monkey in the middle, will positively influence the workplace dynamics and politics.

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