Middle Management: “They just won’t listen to us.  They keep telling us to do things that don’t work and then they act like the reason they don’t work is because we just aren’t working hard enough.  They act like they know what’s going on down here but they have no clue.”

Upper Management:  “I ask them what help they need and they never speak up.  Or when they do, it’s always something we don’t have. They just won’t follow the systems that we have in place.  If they would just do their jobs and focus on the things that truly matter, then things would be working out better.  Now I’ve got to get more involved and do more of their jobs myself.”

Many times when the work environment in larger organizations becomes toxic it is difficult to fix because it is not the fault of any particular person.  While there is always enough blame to go around, the culprit is generally poor communication. Now as an advocate of Legacy Leadership, I am of the opinion that whenever there is a problem in an organization it is due to the failing of those at the top.  However, this is not a casting of blame since one core tenet of Legacy Leadership is that failure is foundational to success. This failure, like any failure, is truly an opportunity for growth. So how do we turn it around?

Well, it must first be acknowledged.  Often, the culture turns toxic because those in upper management do not feel they can trust the judgment of those in middle management.  Too often they have experienced the subordinates making decisions based on seemingly faulty logic, or declaring that a thing can’t be done which they know can be because they have done it.  This causes the upper managers to insert themselves in various places where their judgement would generally be better if they had perfect information. However, they never truly can have perfect information, and ironically, the people that they can get the best information from are the very people they don’t have much faith in.

This is where the failure comes in.  Up to this point upper management has been asking for information and giving orders, and when middle management pushes back against those orders with “faulty logic” then it feels like a threat to the enterprise, to the hierarchy, and to the power dynamic.  In actuality, it is a cry for help. What those in middle management and even the team members on the shop floor who are echoing their managers are saying is, “I don’t understand how to accomplish what you are asking for...I don’t know how to make you happy.”  

This is often the case when those in upper management have not done a good enough job of teaching their subordinates how to speak to them in a way that helps them make decisions quickly.  This is not as difficult to do as it is to describe. Basically, leaders must help their subordinates understand how they make decisions and what questions they need answered in order to make the changes desired.  Too often, lower level managers come to their superiors with problems that they do not fully know how to articulate. This failure to communicate the issue is taken as an indication of a lack of seriousness rather than a failure to communicate the seriousness.  

I always like to look at this type of communication like speaking in two different languages.  Often times, the newer managers who occupy middle management are not very adept at speaking the language of the decision makers.  They have spent the majority of their lives speaking the language of followers. Then they get promoted and they spend the next few years stumbling around trying to learn the language of decision makers.  And just like with any language, it is easier to learn with a teacher.

Additionally, in order to truly communicate in another language, it is not enough to simply know the vocabulary.  It is imperative that one understands the culture and the thought processes because speaking another language is as much about how you see the world as it is about what comes out of your mouth.  Transliteration cannot fully capture the expression of abstract ideas. This is the reason that we have translators when we want to work with someone that speaks a different language than we do. This also why software programs like Google translate cannot make you an expert in another language, because context matters.

And this brings us to the failure of the upper managers, and their opportunity for growth.  Because they have not taught their people how to think and speak the language of decision makers, much of the information they get follows the logic and the grammatical structure of follower language.  It leaves out a lot of the nuance that is necessary to fully understand what is being communicated. It looks, feels, and sounds like a tourist spouting out a bunch of words that they have read from a book.  It makes you know that they don’t belong...and therefore, you don’t trust what they are saying.

So how do we teach our people how to speak the language of decision making?  Well what followers are 3 tips to make your people better communicators and therefore better resources for your decision making process:

  1. Know your decision making process

It is important for you, as the leader, to know how you make decisions.  What things are priorities to you? What information do you need to have before you go forward?  What information is less important but helpful in making decisions.

There are many tools to help you map this out.  Whichever one you use make sure that it focuses on the decisions which proceed the process steps.  This will help you to see the information that you need from your people.

2. Ask better questions

Often times as leaders, we don’t have the patience we need to get what we want.  We get frustrated with the pace of the conversation and we know that we can get the information faster ourselves.  However, this robs us of two opportunities. 1, the opportunity to teach our subordinates. And 2, the opportunity to not gather this information in the future.  The questions we ask communicate to our subordinates what is important to us, however, this doesn’t work so well if we only ask for information. It is harder for the subordinates to discern the processes that are happening in our heads when we only ask for the information that we need and don’t walk them through our process as it happens.  

The next time you need to make a decision, ask for information, but also ask your middle level leaders to do some of the thinking with you.  Similarly, when your people come to you for information or help that you already know they can do on their own, use questions to walk them through that analysis so that they can see this reality for themselves.

Some examples of better questions are:

“What options have you considered and what brought you to this conclusion?”  Instead of “Why did you do that?”

“Where do you see a potential for the current plan not to work?” rather than “What help do you need?”

3. Get them quick wins

Lastly, you want to make sure that when you are teaching your people to think and speak in decision maker language that you get them some quick wins to cement the lesson.  One simple way to do this is by having them use the information that you are teaching them as quickly as possible in the form of helping them to recast problems they are already dealing with.  Taking them through the problem as a decision maker would think about it is key.

We start first with the outcome that is desired.  We then look at the current situation and consider root causes.  Next, we consider countermeasures that will take us from current situation to desired outcome and prioritize those that will get us there in the least amount of time and effort.  Finally, we make a plan to evaluate our progress based on agreed upon metrics.Each step along this path is a win for your people and it is something that even if you are guiding them through in the beginning, it is making you more efficient because they are learning.  

Ultimately, your people will be able to make the decisions on their own and you will have gained a new, capable counselor in your decision making process. This will help you make better decisions, give you less stress, and eventually, allow you to make less and less of the decisions and finally begin to let go and trust your people.