Many of us are middle managers — with a team to run, but also working below our own boss higher up the corporate ladder. Additionally, we may need to manage “across” the organisation with peers on different teams.
The middle is frequently an uncomfortable place to be, through the demands made on us from above and below, and more widely in terms of public perception: the term “middle manager” has come in for plenty of derision over the years as a byword for pen-pushing bureaucracy. It is often targeted for cuts too.
The pandemic, with all its associated stress — and the additional managerial burdens of looking after remote employees or those forced to stay in frontline workplaces — has highlighted the important function of middle management. These people are, as my former colleague Michael Skapinker wrote in an insightful recent column, “the emotional bridge” in an organisation. I like that characterisation.
As workplaces evolve post-pandemic, we are starting to see serious thought given to the role of the middle manager and how vital it is as connective corporate tissue. My worry is that too many of us in that position don’t realise how powerful we are. We may feel fairly powerless because our role is to execute the policy and projects decided higher up the chain. But for our teams, the fallible line manager (that’s me and probably you) may be their only point of contact with any sort of authority.
And a bad manager ruins lives. The five biggest causes of burnout at work, according to Gallup’s latest State of the Global Workforce survey, are all linked to bad managers, and include “unfair treatment at work” and lack of manager support.
We are planning some stories about middle management — and how we can all do it better. Let us know your thoughts. What’s the hardest part of being a middle manager — managing up or managing down? Let us know at email@example.com. (Isabel Berwick)
As many of us go on summer holidays, we’re curious whether you try to keep up with some work during time off, or whether you feel better when you’ve completely logged off. What makes you feel less stressed? Let us know in this week’s poll.
How to run a more efficient meeting
Meetings are already such an oppressive force that it can seem counterintuitive to enforce a rigid structure for your allotted time, but research shows that constraints are good for innovation. Knowing exactly what is expected of each participant and how the meeting will be run helps everyone make the most of the time.
I was introduced to the notion of a “tactical” meeting at my last job. The format comes from Holacracy, a type of flat organisational structure, but tactical meetings can be useful regardless of how your company is organised.
A tactical starts with some general housekeeping: everyone checks in, then a facilitator runs through action items from the previous tactical, and receives updates on whether they’ve been completed. A note taker checks off action items and records other relevant details, such as if the due date of a project has changed. It’s important that these updates don’t spin off into discussions — hold questions and concerns for the next phase of the meeting.
Next, build a rapid-fire agenda of “tensions” — these can be questions, requests, updates, or other issues that need buy-in or collaboration from the group. This should only take a couple minutes at most. A common mistake that tactical newbies make during agenda setting is to provide long-winded context and a fully formed question rather than a one- or two-word description. Think of it as simply taking a number at the deli counter. It is not yet time to order your sandwich!
Once the agenda is set, work through each tension. Problems aren’t necessarily solved within the meeting, but as long as a next step is discussed and assigned to someone as an action item, then you can declare the “tension resolved”, cross it off, and move on to the next one.
Tacticals can feel stiff until you get into the groove of them, but in my experience there is a lot to love about them. Besides giving you that feeling of accomplishment that comes with assigning practical action items, tacticals build in opportunities for everyone to participate, which gets people engaged in a way that doesn’t feel forced.
Perhaps most importantly, tacticals give your team a shared language and an accountability system for the next steps. You might even grow fond of the jargon and find yourself declaring “tension resolved” to coworkers whenever you get the chance. (Sophia Smith)
Listen in: How hybrid work affects women
This week on the Working It podcast we spoke about hybrid work — is it a trap for women? I was joined by the FT’s Sarah O’Connor and Taylor Nicole Rogers to discuss some of the knock-on effects of flexible working during the pandemic.
More women than men value the balance that working from home can bring, but the effects of proximity bias (our human instinct to favour the people right in front of us in the office, not the ones on Zoom) and other “invisibility” factors are just starting to be felt.
The best findings we’ve found about women and work come from this Deloitte report, which interviewed 5,000 women across ten countries. One staggering data point is that almost 60 per cent of the women who are working in hybrid environments say they have been excluded from important meetings.
Next week we’re talking about friends at work. A good friend makes you a happier, more engaged worker — and is also good for business. We’ll hear from guests including professor Lynda Gratton of London Business School, author of Redesigning Work, and my former work BFF, Sarah Gordon. (Isabel Berwick)
Elsewhere in the world of work:
1. It’s time to call a truce in the ‘war for talent’: Most organisations tend to focus on their star workers, but this obscures the collective work of teams and can be discouraging to everyone else.
2. The founders who ‘boomerang’ back to their companies: Founders form personal attachments to their companies, making it difficult to leave. But a small group of founder-CEOs have done just that — and returned when the time was right.
3. Have we had enough of the nanny employer?: Companies have pushed hard to attend to workers’ needs during the pandemic, creating a kind of corporate intimacy that can feel intrusive, fake or clumsy.
4. Groupthink is good, actually: While echo chambers and confirmation bias can lead to bad decision making, there is merit in overcoming indecision or internal division to unify around a shared purpose.
5. Boot camps for new skills have limited success: Short, online courses that teach in-demand skills are flexible and affordable avenues toward professional opportunity, but a recent assessment found that only 54 per cent of those who completed one found a new or better job.
Go deeper: Read more about the future of skills and training in the FT’s special report on upskilling.
A word from the Working It community:
In the most recent instalment of the FT’s Dear Jonathan career advice column, a reader wonders whether it would be smarter to pursue an MBA or a masters in finance in order to best prepare himself for a career as a real estate fund manager.
Cave Johnson, who also worked in real estate, suggested a Masters in Finance:
MBAs are very varied in the amount of finance stuff you actually do, and a lot of it will be about corporate performance rather than individual investment analysis. There’s lots of stuff in an MBA that won’t be as important to you as a property fund manager. What you probably don’t have that a fund manager employer would want is the financial stuff; the ability to talk the language that your ultimate investors do, the appreciation for how non-real estate fund managers value things, and the types of analysis/process that is quite different to how most developers evaluate an investment.
Matteo Giovannini points out that Masters in Finance programs cater to very young people with little to no work experience, whose goal is to work in financial services. He ultimately recommended an executive MBA:
Considering your age and accumulated experience, an executive MBA with a concentration (finance or real estate) could serve you better since you would be rewarded with the knowledge you need, with the right skills to succeed, and with a network of professionals at your same stage of career. An MBA program could provide you not only with a good technical expertise but also with soft skills and with a holistic view of the business that represent key elements for the next stage of your career. If you still want to fill in your knowledge gaps you can find great resources online at no cost or you can consider adding a financial certification that does not require you to take any time off from your daily job.
Responses have been edited for length and clarity.